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Several years ago, a former Washington City Paper editor offered me this pearl of wisdom: “Never see movies directed by men named Sidney.” Had I heeded his advice, I would have been spared Sidney Lumet’s Just Tell Me What You Want and George Sidney’s The Swinger, not to mention Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield. But I would have missed out on Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet), Kiss Me Kate (Sidney), and Tootsie (Pollack).
This week’s Sidney movie partially confirms my ex-boss’s admonition. Critical Care, Lumet’s comedy-drama about the health care industry, is a mixed bag. With an ensemble cast contributing performances that range from polished to execrable and a screenplay that shifts tones (satire, fantasy, social commentary, farce) from scene to scene, the film certainly isn’t boring. But its tame criticism of greed in the medical insurance and hospital establishments breaks no new ground, and its preachy, Capraesque denouement betrays what little conviction Lumet manages to sustain.
Steven S. Schwartz’s script uneasily juggles several plot lines. Second-year resident Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader) and head nurse Stella (Helen Mirren) supervise a high-tech urban hospital’s intensive-care unit where patients are unnaturally sustained on life-support systems. Two sisters, airhead model Felicia Potter (Kyra Sedgwick) and religious fanatic Connie (Margo Martindale), squabble over the fate (and fortune) of their comatose father. Felicia wants to pull the plug on the old man and collect her inheritance. Connie insists on keeping him alive, a decision encouraged by hospital administrators who earn $112,800 each month that he survives. Felicia seduces Werner, secretly recording his unethical boudoir admission that her dad has become a vegetable for use as evidence in legal proceedings.
Several subplots flesh out the narrative. A critically ill younger man whose body has rejected two kidney transplants is visited by emissaries of the devil (gormless Wallace Shawn) and God (Anne Bancroft). Dr. Ernst is harassed by elderly Dr. Butz (Albert Brooks), a critical-care pioneer who has become a senile alcoholic, as well as by hospital officials (Edward Herrmann and Colm Feore) litigating the Potter case.
Acerbic yet compassionate, the reliable Mirren serves as the sane, still center of this excessively eventful movie, while Spader’s wormy, Paul McCartneyish androgyny suits the increasingly flummoxed Ernst. But Brooks’ stunt casting as a man twice his actual age is a distracting mistake; one keeps peering through his opaque geriatric makeup to find traces of the actor’s familiar face. Shawn and Bancroft are stymied by jejune theological dialogue, and Sedgwick is disastrously miscast as a blond bombshell. Looking and sounding like a duck in a minidress, she’s less a temptress than a poster girl for sexual abstinence.
Handsomely designed by Philip Rosenberg and strikingly shot by master cinematographer David Watkin, Critical Care is far better crafted than Lumet’s recent efforts. But its flat climax, a series of thuddingly didactic monologues, neutralizes the film’s few bright moments.
At times, movie reviewers can threaten one’s sanity. A case in point is the rapturous critical reception allotted writer-director-composer Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. Granted, the film is stylish and features two arresting performers, but what a load of codswallop! Figgis’ screenplay seemed to be drawn from a progressive nursery school’s existentialism primer. I didn’t believe a moment of the doomed alliance of Nicolas Cage’s gravebound alcoholic screenwriter and Elisabeth Shue’s saintly, glamour-girl hooker. The film’s sentimental indulgence of Cage’s solipsistic character, stirred with the misogynistic treatment of its heroine and spiked by a gratuitously ugly rape scene, yielded a noxious cinematic cocktail. I couldn’t quite suppress my guffaws during the absurd climactic death scene, in which Cage buys the farm while Shue performs squats on his hitherto limp dick.
When Leaving Las Vegas received an Oscar nomination, I wondered whether I had watched it in an unreceptive mood. But Figgis’ follow-up, One Night Stand, confirms my suspicion that though he’s an accomplished technician he’s incapable of writing a screenplay that makes a lick of sense. Figgis’ protagonist, Max Carlyle (Wesley Snipes), a married director of television commercials, travels to New York from his California home for a reunion with his estranged friend Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), an AIDS-stricken performance artist. At his hotel, Max encounters Karen (Nastassja Kinski), a lovely, married rocket scientist (seriously!). Following a highbrow evening on the town (a Juilliard String Quartet Beethoven recital) capped by an attempted mugging, the pair repair to Karen’s room for the titular tryst.
Max jets home the next morning but finds himself detached from his wife Mimi (Ming-Na Wen), their children, and his lucrative but artistically unsatisfying job. A year later, he learns that Charlie is dying and returns to New York. At the hospital, he’s reunited with Karen, who turns out to be married to Charlie’s square brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan). As Charlie approaches his demise, the one-night lovers are forced to make decisions that irrevocably alter the future courses of their lives.
The movie opens promisingly, with Max addressing the camera in a remarkably nimble tracking shot that covers several crowded Manhattan blocks. His restaurant reconciliation with Charlie is also deftly executed, with Snipes and Downey trading emotional riffs. But when Karen appears, One Night Stand begins falling apart. Figgis exhausts a stockpile of pseudo-romantic clichés before the inevitable lovemaking occurs. He stages this coupling in a series of arty images that fade to black only to fade in again at the point where the previous shot ended. It’s an original but pointlessly time-killing device that he recycles in several subsequent sequences. The rest of the film creaks along, alternating outlandish contrivances and crushingly stale observationsWest Coast advertising marketers are shallow; AIDS victims endure agonizing painbefore a toothachingly coy ending that toys with viewers to guess which woman Max will end up with.
With varying degrees of success, the cast works mightily to breathe life into Figgis’ writing. Snipes performs with his customary authority, and Kinski, whose complex beauty has grown more expressive with time, is a bewitchingly sensitive presence. But MacLachlan’s quirky talent is squandered in a small, thankless role, Wen is amateurishly smug, and Downey mugs through an excessive number of deathbed scenes while rasping pseudo-profundities (“Life is an orange”). Declan Quinn’s camera work is first-rate, but Figgis’ blowzy new-age lounge-jazz score drenches the images in nacreous sonic ooze.
Reviewers who, on the basis of Leaving Las Vegas, hailed Figgis as a masterful filmmaker are going to have one hell of a time rationalizing this self-indulgent, staggeringly silly fiasco.CP