Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 30, 2021 11:24 pm 
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Heart talk

A reviewer of this new medical ethics drama in an earlier form said the heart transplant candidates would have been more interesting to learn about than the members of the "God" committee the action focuses on, a board charged with choosing who is to get the one organ available at the crucial time. They all need the heart immediately, or they're not going to be around much longer. That's why the committee is necessary. Of course one person could make the decision, but spreading the responsibility around seems wiser, or at least safer. And for our purposes here, more dramatic. Without the committee, there'd be no movie.

The patients who are candidates for the heart to be chosen from include a genial overweight black man with poor insurance coverage and three loving grown daughters; a smart, anti-social woman who is uneasy about an alien organ in her body; and the young drug-addicted son of a wealthy board member angry that his girlfriend is pregnant.

But the focus is not primarily on the patients, even less on the donor. All we know of the latter is he's an 18-year-old "male" (boy, guy,victim) who jumped on his motorcycle that morning and immediately got run over. The main focus is on Dr. Andre Boxer (Kelsey Grammer), a 66-year-old heart surgeon at New York's financially challenged "St. Augustine" hospital (named in honor of the late St. Vincent's, perhaps) tough, unappealing - but the actor beloved to TV fans from decades of "Cheers" and "Frazier." Boxer, as his girlfriend calls him, is a future transplant candidate himself, quite likely. He has a congenital heart defect that spells imminent trouble. Oh, and he smokes. (And this isn't even France.) He eats his eggs with the yolks removed though: no cholesterol!

He also has an interesting project - a major subplot - involving inter-species organ transplants that could solve the donor shortage and hence be both revolutionary and hugely lucrative. But he may not live to see it through, due to his heart problem. Interesting guy. No question this is a great role for Kelsey Grammer and he does well with it, impeccably stoical and mean through the screenplay's many plot twists.

Dr. Boxer has a lover who is an up-and-coming cardiologist herself, Dr. Jordan Taylor (Julia Stiles, still a very cool actress). She fixes him the yolk-free scrambled eggs. Then he drops her off before the hospital entrance so they're not seen together. We get the idea this relationship is a bit edgy. (Later, she declares it to be over.) She is 40. And that morning, or some morning, because the movie's shifting back and forth in time makes one uncertain, she has been chosen to be on the "God" committee herself, along with Dr. Valerie Gilroy Janeane Garofalo), chairperson (because she's at a desk) - they all have unconvincing names like this - and Father Dunbar (Colman Domingo of "Bojak Horseman" and If Beale Street Could Talk), who has been a priest for three years, but was a defense lawyer before that for several decades. "That's a skill set," says Dr. Taylor. Wouldn't one call it something else? A complicated person? A catch-all character? A plot device?

There's another complication, the aforementioned wealthy board member, Emmet Granger (Dan Hedaya). He knows the influential and high-profile Dr. Boxer, and will use his wealth to try to tilt the scales in the direction of his son, Trip (Maurizio Di Meo).

There are other characters. Dr. Allen Lau (Peter Kim) is "the shrink on this ship." Selena Vasquez (Patricia Mauceri) is the hospital patient lined up first to get the young guy's heart - but, a complication arises and knocks her out. Walter Curtis (Kyle Moore) is the genial overweight black guy; he seems to be getting bumped from primo status. Too overweight, not enough insurance...too black, maybe? Then there's Janet Pike (Georgia Buchanan), the smart lady without family support, good at TV quizzes, about all we know about her. Dr. Wilkes (Patricia R. Floyd) joins Father Dunbar as the other black voice on the committee, plain spoken, human, and constantly overruled.

The God Committee's earlier form was a play. The review I mentioned was in Variety . The play was simpler. The new celluloid version is so complicated you doubt they'll ever get around to doing the transplant before the organ expires.

"Even though it is certainly heavy-handed," wrote Sean Boelman in Disappointment Media of the film, "Austin Stark’s medical drama is a solid entry into the genre." That about sums it up. The genre simply has its limitations - and in this case, its over-elaborations. I can't help wondering whether a first-rate director, like Roman Polanski, who did such excellent work in adapting the plays Death and the Maiden and Carnage, might not have been able to inject more intensity, speed, focus, and gloss into this interesting, talky stuff. Unfortunately here, the "opening up" from stage to screen often just makes this seem like hospital TV, albeit with an all-star cast. It also interrupts the main action a little too often with digressions to other times and locations. (The adaptation was cowritten by the director with the playwright, Mark St. Germain.)

The God Committee, 98 mins., debuted at Tribeca June 20, 2021. It releases in theaters and virtual July. 2.

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