Heart Specialist (Ways of the Flesh), TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/16/06 06:59:05
SCREENED AT THE 2006 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: The opening credits to "Ways of the Flesh" don't quite come out and say "based on a true story", although they imply it, and during the Q&A after the movie, writer/director Dennis Cooper never came close to talking about a real Dr. Zachary. Where these characters came from doesn't really matter; I'm just curious to know whether the muted feel of this movie is Cooper trying to show specific people or whole groups in a good light.Inspired by a real person or not, Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris) is the film's narrator, constantly dictating material for his book and standup comedy routine into a tape recorder. He's doing some research on laughter as a palliative medicine, and also observing one of his new interns, Dr. Ray Howard (Brian J. White). Howard is a gifted Harvard graduate who has left Boston for Florida because of a woman (Mya), and comes with a well-deserved reputation as a player. Assisting Sidney with his literary endeavors is his girlfriend Donna (Zoe Saldana), an artist whose life he once saved; supporting cast includes arrogant department head Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin), his sycophant Dr. Propper (David S. Lee), and nervous intern Mitchell Kwan (Kenneth Choi).
All of this goes into Sidney's tape recorder and on-screen, and indeed the very beginning announces what kind of genre tropes we're in for: The mentor who has run-ins with an uncaring bureaucrat, the muse who inspires him, the cocky player who becomes a better man. And it's not so much the standard pieces that are the problem so much as their announcement; when the narrator neatly summarizes the movie up front, then what follows has to either cleverly subvert those expectations or be the best darn example of them that it can be (or at least be as good as an average episode of Grey's Anatomy). It doesn't help that Sidney, having chosen Ray as the subject of his book, occasionally discusses Ray's growth as a doctor and a person with Donna or Ray himself; it's elementary self-referentiality that doesn't make the movie seem any cleverer, even if one or two of the scenes are kind of cute. Similarly, I'm not sure how a story about someone making use of humor is, itself, funny - even when the jokes are on, the audience is a little too aware of the effort to make them funny.
So the jokes wound up just making me chuckle a little rather than laugh out loud. They are kind of familiar - I'm sure each person in the audience will have heard at least one of Sidney's remarks about practicing and receiving medicine in the age of the HMO, if he or she hasn't come up with it independently. They work, though, via the "funny because it's true and well-delivered" principle. They also work because the cast is willing to play it cool rather than mug: Ray's exaggerated ladies'-man thing plays off his self-assurance as much as his good looks, while Donna and Sindey are playful with each other in a way that doesn't seem staged for the audience. Even when scenes don't leap off the screen at the audience, Cooper makes us buy into them enough that the laughter or twinges are genuine. He went to medical school before opting to work in film and television (even including an "M.D." after his name in the credits), so he's probably got a little more first-hand knowledge than other filmmakers covering this territory.
The main cast is okay, with Wood Harris being the clear standout. Harris's Sidney Zachary looks kind of funny with his closely-clipped hair and horn-rimmed glasses, crowing about how hilarious he is when his jokes aren't all that, but Harris imbues the character with enough intelligence and authority to prevent the audience from dismissing him as a mere goof. He makes Zachary what most of us would want out of either a teacher or a doctor, knowledgeable and compassionate, and clearly out to make the world a better place first and foremost. Brian J. White pulls Ray's superficial charm off well enough, handling the moments where he discovers growth nearly as well. Zoe Saldana seems a bit less-than-idea in her early scenes, but becomes a bit more more well-rounded when we learn more about Donna and Sidney. Mya puts a little more into her one-note character than Scott Paulin, David S. Lee, and Kenneth Choi put into theirs.
But, again, it's pretty much Wood Harris's show, and the film works as well as it does because his performance gets us to care some about the characters. The story takes a turn for the serious in the second half, as stories set in and around a hospital almost must, and Wood's good work becomes more obvious, because despite his joking, his character's the one that had at least a little heft from the start. I think the more dramatic second half works a little better than the comedic bits, but to its credit, the film is well-balanced enough even in its pieces that neither side is short-changed.Most folks have probably seen the basic elements before, and quite frankly any individual episode of most hospital-set TV shows will do something better with the whole package looking more polished. The whole does work well enough, though, and Wood Harris is a guy worth checking out.
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