Sidney, Baby, We Gotta Talk

CRITICAL CARE Directed by Sidney Lumet Starring James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Albert Brooks

Critical Care is one of those movies that should come with a big disclaimer before the opening credits: WARNING: This film may contain scenes of grossly oversimplified moral dilemmas and awkward black humor. That would pretty much sum up the new release from veteran director Sidney Lumet and rookie screenwriter Steven S. Schwartz. Marred by crudely conceived, insultingly phony characters and a moral base that is prominent but insincere, the movie dies a slow, drawn out death.

Critical Care tells the story of Dr. Werner Ernst (a groggy James Spader) a young gun working in an ultra high-tech intensive care unit who's looking to make it big. That is, he's looking to get rich and sleep with as many women as possible on the way up. Ernst spends his days tending to patients whose state of health runs the gamut from vegetative to permanently comatose-a foreshadowing of the film's extremely limited scope. His one patient who is actually conscious is a terminally ill dialysis case (played with stunning grace by Jeffery Wright) praying for death.

It's business as usual in the ICU until Felicia Potter (Kyra Sedgwick) struts into Werner's life. Felicia is confusingly shown as being a) very rich and well-bred, and b) dressed in tacky costume jewelry and embarrasingly ill-applied makeup. At any rate, she (or her charming pink-sequined miniskirt) quickly gets the attention of Dr. Ernst. Though at first it appears that Felicia is simply in need of comfort, her more complex desires soon emerge: she wants the young doctor to quietly pull the plug on her vegetative father.

What ensues is a drawn-out mess of a plot, involving seduction, blackmail and some randomly inserted surrealistic interludes featuring Wallace Shawn as the devil. Nothing in the health-care industry, Lumet asserts, is what it seems, and everyone is out to make a quick buck. That's all well and good, but with material so decidedly unenlightening, Lumet as a filmmaker should at least present it in an entertaining or thought-provoking manner. Instead, he putters along, trying to convince the audience that they are seeing something new.

In an attempt to thicken his cinematic stew, Lumet throws in countless non-characters running around trying desperately to make some sort of moral statement. Most prominent is Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks, in a role far beneath him), the resident money hungry alcoholic mastermind doctor emeritus at the hospital. Like so many in the film, Butz never gets to be a real person. He simply serves as a vehicle by which the screenwriter may embody every negative trait associated with the health care industry.

But Brooks is but one painful example of talent going to waste: it's another case of good actors trying their damnedest with bad lines. Kyra Sedgwick, James Spader, Albert Brooks and Helen Mirren are all fine, subtle performers; here, they are relegated to stale, two-dimensional stereo-types. Lumet may as well have subtitles put in key scenes: "This man is evil, because all he cares about is money. This man is good, because he really cares about making people better."

The stylistic choices Lumet has made with the film call attention to its lack of content. The sets look artificial and freshly constructed, and there are hardly enough extras milling around to make the ICU resemble an actual hospital ward. At selected moments, all sound other than dialogue is suppressed--people speak in a vacuum as doors slam and gurneys rumble by in utter silence. It's a unnerving device, but by putting a magnifying lens to the dialogue, Lumet only highlights the stilted writing and heightens the sense that he's out of his element.

Almost all of the experimental techniques in the film end up drawing the audience's attention towards the phoniness not of the health care system, but of the movie itself. Suspension of disbelief fades, leaving the constant awareness that these characters are just actors walking around a set, reading lines off cue cards.

Lumet is not at all new to the directing game. He proved that he had the ability to make a razor-sharp satire with Network, and showed that he could tell intensely compelling stories with films as diverse as 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon. So how did the pro go wrong?

Rather than trying to generate sympathy for his characters, he introduces an ugly mode of black humor that mocks the dead and dying to such a degree that the audience feels too much disgust to get riled up about HMO policies. The black humor itself isn't a bad idea; it is often a key and telling element of good satire. But Lumet has shot himself in the foot by making the humor too universal--if you show disdain for doctors, patients, bereaved family members, athiests, the strongly religious, HMOs and insurance companies, there isn't really anyone left to like.

A bright spot amidst all of this failed moralistic posturing is a beautifully executed subplot involving the terminally ill patient (Wright) and the nurse (Mirren) who is eventually moved to help him end his life. A strong short film on euthanasia could have been made out of this storyline, but it only goes to waste here.

Critical Care trumpets the same basic message over and over: contemporary American health care is all about money, and that's bad. The filmmakers are so busy wielding a sledgehammer of morality that they neglect a plot and characters, both style and substance. Instead, they take broad potshots at the health care machine that could have fit into a three-page pamphlet and turn them into a laborious, uncharacteristically amateurish work.