See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

Wednesday, November 19, 1997

Critical Care

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 1997 at 12:00 AM

It's no coincidence that the high-tech intensive care unit in Critical Care's state-of-the-art hospital looks like a futuristic space module. With this black comedy, director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict, Serpico) proposes that the future of medical care is here and God help us all.

Second-year resident Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader), struggling to stay awake during the final hours of his 36-hour shift, relies heavily on the ICU's head nurse, Stella (Helen Mirren), to monitor patients on life support. Each patient (referred to by number instead of name) is ensconced in a sterile white room, lying on a bulbous green mattress and plugged into a host of silently efficient machines. As envisioned here, the profession of medicine is less hands-on caregiving than reading the output of machines.

Critical Care focuses on two patients: the immobile old man in Bed 5, whose medical chart is a laundry list of expensive life-saving procedures; and in Bed 2, a 23-year-old (Jeffrey Wright) with no kidneys, no hope for a successful transplant and an order to resuscitate signed by well-intentioned family members. Bed 2 pleads with the empathetic Stella to end his misery, which includes hallucinations of the taunting and devilish Furnaceman (Wallace Shawn).

Meanwhile, Dr. Ernst is drawn into a nasty legal quagmire when he becomes involved with Bed 5's firecracker of a daughter, Felicia Potter (Kyra Sedgwick), whose battle with her Bible-thumping sister over their father's care is less about quality of life than who controls a large inheritance.

Steven Schwartz's screenplay (adapted from Richard Dooling's novel) is talky and clever, complex yet blunt, and there's no mistaking the film's point of view: that an artificially prolonged life is akin to purgatory and the medical profession does a poor job of playing God.

Director Lumet expertly blends cynicism with spirituality, realism with fantasy, and employs a visual style that is as clean and sparse as the hospital itself.

But in the seriocomic Critical Care, it's the wickedly funny Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks, channeling Mark Twain and Groucho Marx) who provides the best punch line: This aging medical pioneer refuses to carry health insurance so that, when his time comes, he'll be allowed to die in peace.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit