The Doctor

The Doctor (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Jack MacKee (William Hurt), a surgeon specializing in the heart and lungs, has had a tickle in his throat for months. Clearing it became a habit and Jack does not think anything of it until his coughs produce droplets of blood. He goes to see Dr. Abbott (Wendy Crewson) for a check-up but it is not good news. The diagnosis is laryngeal tumor and further tests are required to determine if it is benign or malignant. The table is turned: Jack, a brilliant doctor but has a poor bedside manner, is forced to experience how it is like to be treated like a specimen rather than a patient who might be feeling afraid, has questions, or in need of comfort.

Based on a memoir by Dr. Edward Rosenbaum and adapted to the screen by Robert Caswell, “The Doctor” is a touching and amusing portrayal of a man who learns the hard way how to really see and feel for the people he encounters on an every day basis. The picture could have been consisted of one cliché after another, but the partnership of Hurt’s performance and an intelligent screenplay create a sort of miracle: the focus is on a person with a specific personality and perspective so his eventual change of heart feels fresh.

Jack’s inability to relate with his patients is not similar to that of Dr. Gregory House where the latter is a mile-a-minute sarcastic motormouth. Here, the character is portrayed as such an expert in balancing professionalism, good jokes, offensive jokes, and sarcasm that he is unaware that he is coming off inappropriate at times. It is often difficult to place a finger on which pulse is front and center. Hurt makes a convincing doctor who has been in healthcare for so long that the character is blinded or numbed by the many things wrong in the establishment. So when reality strikes, Jack is stuck hard.

The manner in which the screenplay allows Jack to relate to two women is interesting. I enjoyed how I always questioned whether Jack and Anne (Christine Lahti), his wife, are a happy couple. In the beginning, I assumed they are on the verge of separation because it is suggested that he spends too much time with his job and not enough with his family. Later, I realized I was wrong—or so I thought. In some scenes, I felt my original instinct was right. I enjoyed how the level of connection—or disconnection—between the pair is not always clear. It feels honest: not every couple is happy—or angry—with one another or all the time. Some days are good and others can be better.

The second relationship takes in a form of friendship between Jack and June (Elizabeth Perkins), a woman who has a stage four brain tumor. We suspect that June is likely to teach Jack how to accept his condition and “start truly living” because she appears very together for a person who is dying. As it turns out, she also has a lot of anger but not toward an obvious thing. There are layers to her and we understand why Jack is drawn to her personality and energy.

There are a few corny scenes but most of them can easily be overlooked. However, one that strikes the wrong chord with me is a spontaneous trip to the desert. Later, we watch Jack and June’s silhouettes dancing as the sun sets. I suppose it is designed to be sweet, but I found the whole sequence as trying too hard to make us think that there might be something else beyond friendship between them.

I wonder if “The Doctor,” directed by Randa Haines, was at one point shown to medical students to remind them that being a good doctor requires more than knowing facts and applying them. A good doctor is one who can also relate with his or her patients. The first half is especially good at showing the other side of the desk, the side where people—often uncomfortable or in pain—sit on chairs to fill out pages of forms and wait for their names to be called. Even when they do finally get one-on-one time, there is no guarantee they will be treated the way they ought to be treated.

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