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Gross Anatomy
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by Jack Sommersby

"'The Paper Chase' Gone Medical School"
4 stars

Should have done better box office but audiences weren't keen on it at the time.

Matthew Modine gives one of the year's best performances as Joe Slovak, a first-year medical student in the fine The Paper Chase-like Gross Anatomy. Slovak can be an excellent pupil, but because of his gift for retention he slacked off in college and achieved only mediocre grades; his penchant is for relying on boldface in the textbooks to barely get by, which has been just enough to get into medical school. And retention is badly needed in what is probably the most challenging institutions of higher learning - hundreds of pages of text are required to be tested on on a regular basis, and that's just the classroom classes, with the quizzes in gross anatomy (where bodies are dissected) even more arduous. Joe is confident enough in his abilities not to let the heavy classroom load get to him: he knows he can skate by in putting in the most minimum effort he can; but his lead instructor, a Dr. Rachel Woodruff Christine Lahti), sees his innate potential and challenges him on his desire to be merely "average." (When he scores just an 84 on his midterm, try as he might, Joe's momentarily defeated in disappointment.) Modine is a wonderfully original actor who tears into his interesting role as if it were Steak Tartare, and he more than delivers in giving Joe the kinds of tics and quirks without over overdoing the eccentric aspects; he was lost at sea two years prior as the star of Stanley Kubrick's failure Full Metal Jacket because he was stuck trying to flesh out a conception rather than a character, but two years before that he etched a wonderful portrait as the high-school wrestler in the excellent Vision Quest where he came through as a really original actor, and that very same year he also impressed as the catatonic Vietnam veteran in the affecting Birdy. Modine seems not to have do much as a single derivative bone in his artistic body in that he comes through with original touches so as to make a character as his very own (he couldn't in Jacket because Kubrick hasn't had interest in characterization in years), so his standout work in this genre assignment is even more rewarding - he takes what might have been an obnoxious cliche and gives it something of an ironic spin in that you can"t help rooting for Joe while never quite knowing what he's about. (The screenplay could've been clearer on how he's able to attend high-tuition medical school being that his family is lower-middle-class and his egregious college grade-point average couldn't have possibly qualified him for an academic scholarship.) With his long swept-back hair, nondescript clothing, and basketball in tote, Joe is a handsome young man who manages to stand out simply because he wills himself to stand out among the other students whom he regards as stick-in-the-muds for taking their caseload so direly seriously. He simply can't imagine how great retention alone can't get him by, though (and this is what's really revealing about the character) you sense he does know his limitation but is just too damn proud to ask for help and put in the proper studying hours.

Dr. Woodruff is his initial antagonist who can see right through him, and the always-welcome Lahti gives her a steely nerve that cuts right through Joe's BS. She won't budge and inch, and it's a real pleasure seeing these two highly intelligent people square off - you know she has the ability to usurp him yet Joe can get himself out of a crunch when need be when he puts his mind to it. (The movie's best scene is when the two square off when she's in a vulnerable health state and tells him she wants him to be more than he thinks he can be.) In its own way, Gross Anatomy is far superior to the spurious Dead Poet's Society from earlier in the year on the subject of the true difference a teacher can make. The supporting characters in that Robin Williams-starring travesty (I absolutely loathed its smugness and obviousness) made all of the students boring and hoary cliches whereas the ones in this movie a cut above average, with the standout Joe's anal-retentive roommate David (an intensively focused Todd Field) who has more passion for medicine than Joe but just not the aptitude, and when he eventually becomes an amphetamine-addicted junkie so as to keep up on his reading assignments he's heartbreaking - he's been forced into this by his domineering father, and it comes off akin to throwing a five-year-old into an adult pool who hasn't learned to swim. Also noteworthy is Joe's love interest Laurie (Daphne Zuniga, who co-starred alongside Modine in Vision Quest) who comes from a wealthy, privileged family yet can't help but be amazed by Joe's unassuming brazenness - she admires his blatant disregard for norms yet jealous at his ability to stay afloat in the classroom while she's going full-tilt-boogie in her off-hours. Most of this would be okay but unremarkable if the proceedings weren't persuasively engineered, and the director, Thom Eberhardt, whose previous work I haven't seen, gets us from scene to scene with competence (if not elegance); added to which he had the good sense to employ one of the very best editors in the business, Bud Smith (whose spectacularly precise work can be seen in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A.), who moved things smoothly along with the utmost confidence. And unlike the decent The Paper Chase it's at least interesting to look at. But the movie lives or dies by Modine, and he more than delivers. He's vivid yet convincing at the same time, and one can't imagine what Gross Anatomy would be without him. He masterly becomes Joe and takes him in all sorts of different directions, and when he finally emerges as a mature, creditably changed human being you believe it. It's a wonderful performance in a sometimes-wonderful cinematic exercise.

Grade: B-plus.

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originally posted: 09/11/20 10:15:30
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  02-Oct-1989 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Thom Eberhardt

Written by
  Ron Nyswaner
  Mark Spragg

  Matthew Modine
  Daphne Zuniga
  Christine Lahti
  Todd Field
  Takes Mokae

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