Helen Mirren and James Spader star in CRITICAL CARE, directed by Sidney Lumet for Live Entertainment.

Critical Care (1997, Sidney Lumet)

Critical Care opens on its main set–sets are important in Critical Care–with Helen Mirren (as a nurse) checking up on ICU patients. The ICU is a circle, Mirren rounding it by the end of the titles, returning to the station at the center, where James Spader (as a resident) naps during a thirty-six hour shift. The two have a conversation about medical school, Spader’s dating habits and mundanities. It’s a strange opening–technically superior thanks to Lumet–with the ICU an all white environment (it’s like 2001, actually). When the film moves into a world of color, Critical Care maintains the same tone–which is incredibly difficult, or should be, given Albert Brooks is in old age make-up (with Spader as his disinclined protégé). It’s slightly off. Lumet’s got a specific visual style for the film, but even taking it into account, it’s still slightly off.

And then–just before the Blow Up homage–I realized what makes Critical Care so particular. It’s the finest adaptation of a stage play where the source material is not a stage play. Lumet’s approach to the film is to present the action–in the ICU, the material outside that setting is a lot more filmic–like it’s playing out on stage. This approach doesn’t affect Lumet’s composition, which is excellent and cinematic, and I can’t even tell if it’s in Steven Schwartz’s script. But the time Lumet gives to his actors–Spader and Mirren–is stunning. They have scenes together throughout the film, but they both have their own story arcs (Spader’s being the major one) and when they reunite at the end… it’s almost like the film’s been holding its breath and no one noticed. It’s fantastic.

Lumet also makes a lot of time for Brooks, but it’d be criminal if he hadn’t. Not only is Brooks constantly hilarious–and frightening, given he’s talking about healthcare–but it’s the one time (in recent cinema) where someone playing aged works perfectly. The logic mazes–Brooks’s character suffers from short term memory losses–in the scenes are hysterical.

Spader’s got a very leading man role here and he plays it well. It’s probably the finest film performance I’ve seen him give. Mirren’s excellent as well–her scenes with Jeffrey Wright, where he doesn’t talk, are great. Wright’s scenes with Wallace Shawn, where he does talk, are also great. One of the greatest things about Critical Care is its fearlessness. The film doesn’t have a big hook at the beginning, it doesn’t have any reason to expect a lot of involvement from its viewers; it just goes ahead without concerning itself with them.

The supporting cast–Kyra Sedgwick, Anne Bancroft, Philip Bosco, especially Colm Feore–is superior.

I’ve known about this film for eleven years–I remember seeing a picture of Brooks in make-up–but I never got around to seeing it until now. Through its running time, it just gets better and better. Near the end, as the film shifted into its final stage, I worried about it forgetting itself. It doesn’t. The end has all the right ingredients, mixed wonderfully.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Steven Schwartz, based on the novel by Richard Dooling; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Tom Swartwout; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Schwartz and Lumet; released by Live Entertainment.

Starring James Spader (Dr. Werner Ernst), Kyra Sedgwick (Felicia Potter), Helen Mirren (Stella), Anne Bancroft (Nun), Albert Brooks (Dr. Butz), Jeffrey Wright (Bed Two), Margo Martindale (Connie Potter), Wallace Shawn (Furnaceman), Philip Bosco (Dr. Hofstader), Colm Feore (Richard Wilson), Edward Herrmann (Robert Payne), James Lally (Poindexter) and Harvey Atkin (Judge Fatale).

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