Tag: christine lahti

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.

Running on Empty


Running on Empty (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During the Vietnam War, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) bombed a military research facility that created napalm. They believed that by the time the bomb had exploded, the facility was empty. However, there was a janitor inside and he ended up blind and paralyzed. Annie and Arthur, with their two-year-old son, Danny, go on the run from the FBI. Sixteen years later, they are still fugitives, now a family of four, and have recently moved to New Jersey with new identities.

Written by Naomi Foner and directed by Sidney Lumet, “Running on Empty” is a coming-of-age film with plenty to say about family and responsibility–responsibility to each other and with oneself. It is an effective drama because the family, whose members genuinely love one another but are constantly on edge unmitigated by their unique situation, is on the verge of a potential separation for the sake a young man’s future.

Danny (River Phoenix) has an aptitude for music. After playing a piece on the piano for his music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) is so impressed, he books his student an audition in Juilliard. And they want him. But there is a problem. Since the Pope family, known as the Manfields in New Jersey, has moved so often and had to change their names each time, Danny has no school record which is required for his admission.

The film is not blind to its characters’ realities and they are written smart. No judgment is placed on Annie and Arthur either as activists or radicals. They feel bad about the fact that they have ruined a man’s life because of their beliefs but their decision to bomb the research center is not given some sort of pat justification so we can root for them or like them more. Instead, the screenplay focuses on the home and how their bombing continues to change their children’s lives–oftentimes for the worse.

Annie and Arthur struggle to be good parents, taking whatever jobs they can, while keeping in mind that stability is something that they can never provide for their children. As a family, they must adapt quickly with the changes or risk going to jail. Sometimes it is scary, like how Danny and his little brother (Jonas Abry) attempt to evade the FBI in the beginning of the film and meet their parents at a designated spot if they happen to get compromised. And since it is a drama, there is no glamour in people constantly running from the law as, for example, what we expect from an action-thriller. The focus is on the pain in the attachments formed under threat of being broken in a moment’s notice.

A major subplot involves Danny falling for his music teacher’s plucky daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), who has dreams of becoming a writer in New York City. She talks about her hopes for the future, going to college, and everything she is excited to accomplish. Danny listens in silence, head down, knowing that he, as long as he stays with his family, cannot share any of it with her. Nor does he have a chance of forging his own path. There is sadness there because, in a way, he has to choose between his family and his future.

The most moving scene is of Annie meeting her father (Steven Hill) in a French restaurant to ask if he might consider taking Danny so he can have a shot in leading a normal life. They have not seen each other in fourteen years. It is very moving because the reunion works as a foreshadowing in what Annie and Danny might end up having–secret meetings, unable to see each other for a very long time–if her father were to accept.

“Running on Empty” is elegant in construction plot-wise, the way it executes simple scenes, and the manner in which it highlights important yet understated emotions. Notice the scene when Danny and Lorna are at the beach. Lorna’s body tends to stay in one place, but Danny cannot help but lead them forward. With him, there is almost a subconscious discomfort in settling down.