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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Medical Comedies (originally published 11/97)

As I write this, I am just barely on the mend from a rather nasty illness that doesn't bear description here. Moreover, I have a loved one in the hospital whom I haven't dared to visit for fear of spreading my contagion. In view of all this, I was wondering how I was going to muster up the energy to bat out a column when I happened to think of "Critical Care," director Sidney Lumet's recent dark comedy satirizing the health care industry. Now there is a topic I can warm to even through my pain and anxiety.

Nor am I alone, apparently, because "Critical Care" is far from being the first film to take a satiric scalpel to the medical profession. If your last encounter with the folks in the white smocks left you with something less than a warm and fuzzy feeling, here are some titles to look for on video. They won't cure what ails you, but they might make you feel a bit better just the same.

"Doctor in the House" (1954). It all starts in medical school, I suppose. That's the focus of this British comedy tracing the exploits of four chums trying to slog their way through their studies. Simon Sparrow, played by Dirk Bogarde, is a newcomer. The three fellows he takes up with are all taking a second crack at the curriculum, having failed their exams the first time through. This gentle lampoon of the medical profession was popular enough to spawn a half dozen sequels and a television series.

"Carry On Nurse" (1959). Before there was Benny Hill, there was the "Carry On" series. These British comedies from the producer/director team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas have taken on everything from the military to weekend campgrounds. Here the object of their ridicule is an unruly hospital men's ward, but it's all just harmless fun. Their style is so resolutely and unashamedly silly that their jabs carry very little sting, notwithstanding their willingness to hit below the belt.

"The Hospital" (1971). On the other hand, this withering satiric masterpiece from the venom-dipped pen of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky draws fresh blood with every laugh. With the precision of a surgeon Chayefsky lays bare the outrages of modern medicine, from casual incompetence on the part of floor staff to the venal preoccupation with unconscionable profit on the part of arrogant physicians who spend more time on the phone to their stock brokers than checking on their patients. George C. Scott is brilliant as a senior staff member at the hospital who has been pushed to the brink of madness by the unrelenting horror show.

"House Calls" (1978). Fundamentally, this is a romantic comedy, and as such its prime narrative task is to bring together its stars, Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. The backdrop for their romance, however, is one of those impossibly fouled-up hospitals that we're sure can only exist in the movies. (We are sure of that, aren't we?) Art Carney plays a chief of staff who is so addlebrained that you wonder how he manages to report to work every day.

"Britannia Hospital" (1982). Director Lindsay Anderson's British answer to "The Hospital" is widely regarded as an elaborate analogy, with a decrepit madhouse of a hospital symbolizing Anderson's view of Britain as a nation. That may be true, but I can't help wondering if Anderson hadn't just been to a couple of really lousy hospitals. In any case, his fictional hospital contends with everything from labor protests to a mad doctor (not an angry physician, mind you; a genuine mad doctor in the Frankenstein tradition).

"Gross Anatomy" (1989). If only the ultimately harmless tomfoolery of medical school as portrayed in "Doctor in the House" were the long and the short of it, we'd be all right. Unfortunately, the med school shown in this rather more depressing film is probably closer to the mark. It depicts medical school as a kind of torture test, survived ultimately not by those with the most promise as physicians but simply by the best survivors. And the best survivor of them all is a young lad named Joe Slovak (Matthew Modine) who is right upfront about the fact that he's only in it for the money.

That reminds me, the pharmacy ought to have my prescriptions ready by now. I'd better dash, before the banks close.

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