Vital Signs

It's all here: Arthritic writing, atrocious direction, career-crushing performances. Critics are always bitching about having to endure bad movies without finding one bad enough to really enjoy. Well, this is it. I clocked a laugh a minute, not one of them intentional. The scene is med school, third year, the tough year, the time when budding docs leave the classroom and start touching sick flesh – under supervision, of course. It's The Paper Chase with stethoscopes.

Standing in for John Houseman as the grand old man is L.A. Law's Jimmy Smits. (This is a young picture.) Smits, playing Dr. David Redding, the chief of surgery, has two top candidates for the surgical residency: bachelor Michael (Adrian Pasdar) and married man Kenny (Jack Gwaltney). Though the competition is fierce, director Marisa Silver (Old Enough) films both the boys with such lipsmacking adoration that it looks more like a contest for cutest buns. The women contenders have it worse. Diane Lane – slumming here after her classy work in TV's Lonesome Dove – plays Gina, whose hotshot surgeon boyfriend, Dr. Ballentine (Bradley Whitford), tells her that the scalpel is no tool for her pretty little hands. Does she fight him? Nope, she sticks to pediatrics. Gina shakes in the operating room, cries buckets when a patient dies and indulges in a quickie with Michael in the supply room. Then there's Suzanne (Jane Adams), who gets all rattled when a love affair goes wrong. Laura San Giacomo – oh, what a fall from sex, lies, and videotape – is flustered, too, as Lauren, Kenny's neglected, nagging wife. And a woman directed this! Does the ERA have room for a hit list?

Unredeemed by a sense of irony or shame, screenwriters Larry Ketron (Fresh Horses) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) come up with dramatic conflicts that went out with Dr. Kildare. The finale, in which the cast members pair off and dress up in photo-op style to toss balls, play kissy-poo and show off their haircuts, is a jaw-dropping howl. Okay, nobody puts a bedpan on his or her head. You can't have everything.

From The Archives Issue 577: May 3, 1990