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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 letters@metrotimes.com.

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