The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast

Movie Review: Critical care -- Do you really want these people taking care of you?

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Sidney Lumet's career spans more than the last 40 years, and includes such masterpieces as Twelve Angry Men and Network. The first put on trial the jury system, and the latter shone spotlight on the network television. Critical Care, Lumet's 41st movie, is a methodical dissection of American medical system. It's definitely not in the same range as the two movies mentioned above, but still very much worth a look.

Modern medicine is advanced enough that it can keep people alive almost indefinitely. Critical care units hook the patients to the oxygen fans, dialysis machines, intravenous feeding tubes, etc., so they can be kept "technically alive." Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader, looking somewhat bored through the first hour of the movie) is on his second year of residency at the technologically advanced critical care unit at one of the America's foremost hospitals. He is on the fast track toward a great career and prosperity - could his future be any brighter? Well, no. This future is not going to be as perfect as he wishes. When two daughters of a comatose patient can't agree if they should keep their father on life support, Dr. Ernst finds himself in the center of a medical, moral, and legal crisis, from which he might not be able to escape intact.

Critical Care raises burning questions about the nature of medicine, euthanasia, and greed and money influencing ethical decisions. It should be credited to both director Lumet and screenwriter Schwartz that the movie doesn't feel like an essay on the given topic. As the matter of fact, the serious nature of its ideas doesn't make the movie itself serious. For most of its time (with the exception of a handful of serious - and remarkably unconvincing - scenes toward the end), Critical Care is a comedy, or, rather, a darkly comic satire.

Starting from the opening shot of the high-tech environment of the hospital, while the soundtrack cheerfully informs "thigh-bone is connected to the knee-bone", the movie starts successfully treading on a very fine line. There is a lot of funny stuff in the movie: sharp dialogue, unexpected twists of the plot, and satirical portrayal of doctors, lawyers, and the like. On the other hand, it often feels like the audience shouldn't laugh - it should scream. After all, if these are the people we trust with our lives, then something is definitely wrong with the system.

If only Critical Care remained a black comedy for all of its two-hour running time. While it is edgy and morbidly funny, it works. (One unexpected treat: an appearance by Wallace Shawn - a bald pirate from The Princess Bride - who plays, quite literally, a cackling demon). But it turns preachy toward the end (when Shawn is replaced by a humorless Anne Bancroft as an angelic nun). Fortunately, the movie still commands some attention even in the weaker last half an hour; the resolution of the main plot is well done, and Spader actually does some neat acting.

The time will show, I guess, if Critical Care will overcome its shortcomings (the fact that it feels timely might make it outdated faster) and join other Lumet's films in gaining the status of "classics". In any case, go and watch Twelve Angry Men; it was made more than 40 years ago, and it is still brilliant.

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Starring James Spader, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Mirren, Margo Martindale, Jeffrey Wright, Wallace Shawn, and Anne Bancroft

Written by Richard Dooling (novel) and Steven S. Schwartz