Down From the Shelf ~ The Doctor

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jack McKee is a doctor with it all: he’s successful, he’s rich, and he has no problems…. until he is diagnosed with throat cancer. Now that he has seen medicine, hospitals, and doctors from a patient’s perspective, he realizes that there is more to being a doctor than surgery and prescriptions.

Stars: William Hurt, Christine Lahti, Elizabeth Perkins, Mandy Patinkin, Wendy Crewson

Director: Randa Haines

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Even if you’re healthy as a horse, chances are you’ve seen more than a few doctors in your life.  Maybe it’s just a routine check-up, or maybe it’s for something more serious.  Bedside manner is an oft-joked on subject where the medical profession is concerned and we all are aware at how important and attentive an understanding professional opinion is when we need it most.  That feeling gets to the heart of what 1991’s The Doctor is really about, making it more than a personal story of one doctor previously out of touch with everything outside of an operating room.

The trouble with The Doctor, however, is in the title performance from Hurt who could play aloof in his sleep…it’s when he’s called on to become compassionate and caring that some serious false notes are struck.  There’s something quite resistible in his portrayal of a hot-shot surgeon that seems to see each patient for their stitches and maladies, rather than the person that is living with them.  He’s not very present in his personal life either with a wife (Lahti) and son (Korsmo) that have learned the hard way what it’s like to put too much faith in him to come through in a pinch.

That all changes when the doctor suddenly becomes the patient after being diagnosed with throat cancer by new colleague (Crewson), a practitioner even chillier than he is.  Through frustrating appointments, botched treatments, and a healthy dose of a taste of his own medicine, our doctor begins to see the light and makes strides to change himself.  This sounds like the plot for any countless big screen and small screen tales…so what makes this film notable?  Not much, really.

Twenty years later, the film still moves briskly through its paces and is amiable enough to be decent casual viewing.  Perkins is more interesting than any other person in the film as a cancer patient tasked with delivering the obligatory “Who do you think you are” speeches to Hurt as he blusters frustratingly along.  Hurt gives us such a removed and unlikable character at the outset that you really don’t care when the changes to his personality do come.  I mean, even Scrooge has to be somewhat redeemable for the ending of A Christmas Carol to work, right?   

It doesn’t help that Hurt plays the newly enlightened doctor as a holier than thou know it all.  It seems wrong to side with Hurt when he tells off a fellow surgeon for not caring enough when thirty minutes prior he was in the exact same situation.  Hurt and director Haines were more successful with their collaboration on Children of a Lesser God…probably because Marlee Matlin was easily the true star of that picture. 

A perfectly fine film that works better as home viewing, The Doctor has a nice little nugget of an idea (it’s loosely adapted from a novel) that might have gone down easier with a better lead.   Had Hurt not been present, audiences and critics might have responded better to the film upon its initial release.

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