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`CRITICAL CARE' A HEALTHY DOSE OF SKEWERED ENTERTAINMENT.

Byline: Karen Hershenson Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire

Director Sidney Lumet takes aim at the diseased heart of the health-care industry in ``Critical Care,'' a brutal satire that will make you even more skittish about checking in.

Acupuncture, colon cleansings, even voodoo are going to look good after this movie, which depicts hospitals as places where profit motive long ago replaced compassion. But you knew that.

The big-city hospital in ``Critical Care'' is a house of horrors, where incompetence reigns from the executive suites to the basement. The main concern is not ``How are you doing?'' but ``Are you insured?''

Like Lumet's ``Network,'' which skewered the television industry, it's sophisticated and sharp, shoveling up yuks while maintaining a grave underlying tone. A doctor, after reviewing the many procedures a patient has endured, asks: ``Did these charts go to Medicare or Amnesty International?''

James Spader leads a cast of acting veterans that includes Helen Mirren as Nurse Stella and Albert Brooks as irascible Dr. Butz, an alcoholic bumped all the way upstairs to head of intensive care. He longs for the days when doctors were treated like gods instead of ``overpriced auto mechanics.''

A cloven-hoofed Wallace Shawn is the devil in a patient's fevered dreams, and Anne Bancroft is an angel of mercy in a nun's habit. These are cartoonish touches, but they don't cloud Lumet's pointed message: the medical industry is definitely Code Red.

I would like to take a moment to rave about Spader, an underrated actor whose leading-man good looks belie a darker soul. He brings a dangerous edge to every role, whether it's the videotaper in ``sex, lies, and videotape'' or the battered car-wreck survivor in ``Crash.''

He portrays Dr. Werner Ernst, a brilliant young doctor who wanders about in this sterile wonderland, trying to help patients on two hours' sleep and 10 cups of bad coffee. Worse are the surreal encounters with the addled Dr. Butz, who is constantly paging him and then forgetting what he wanted.

Stella is his only intellectual equal, a longtime nurse and breast-cancer survivor who has managed to play the game the way the administration wants while remaining deeply compassionate, especially to a man who has lost both kidneys and begs to die.

The movie centers on a comatose patient in his 70s with two daughters, one a sex kitten named Felicia (Kyra Sedgwick) who wants him removed from life support; the other a born-again Christian named Connie (Margo Martindale) who wants him kept alive at any cost. At stake is a $10-million inheritance.

Dr. Ernst gets manipulated by Felicia, landing in a mess that crystallizes every aspect of the health-care dilemma, from the bottom-line agenda of the hospital attorneys to grander things such as moral and ethical responsibility.

I'm not sure Lumet has a mass-appeal movie here; there are lots of folks who are never going to be in the mood for an intellectual comedy about health care. But for those who do pay the cost of admission, ``Critical Care'' is a worthy dose of entertainment.

THE FACTS

The film: ``Critical Care'' (R; language, sexual content).

The stars: James Spader, Helen Mirren and Kyra Sedgwick.

Behind the scenes: Produced and directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Steven Schwartz.

Running time: One hour, 49 minutes.

Playing: AMC Promenade 16 in Woodland Hills, AMC Century 14 in Century City.

Our rating: Three Stars.

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Photo: James Spader plays a brilliant young doctor trying to help patients on two hours' sleep and 10 cups of bad coffee in ``Critical Care.''
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 2, 1997
Words:588
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