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Writing About Film

Doc Hollywood, 1991Country Doctor

Doc Hollywood (Michael Caton-Jones, 1991)

In These Times, 1991


Films like Doc Hollywood give reviewers fits. Critics for the most part being pale, urban types with finicky, over-analytical minds, it's only natural that they spend their time in the dark self-satisfyingly castigating every film which comes their way.

Doc Hollywood looks to be perfect fodder: its trailers promise lightweight Michael J. Fox, sophomoric sexcapades and a pandering glorification of country living. Well, the film itself does not oblige: it's a lot better than it should have been, and, worst of all, its message hits home. What else explains me leaving the theater hankering to escape to some rural hideaway far removed from the milieu of the air-conditioned seven-screen movie palace? Talk about nipping a reviewing career in the bud...

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring the above-mentioned Fox and Julia Warner, Doc Hollywood is a surprisingly engaging comedy-romance. Though no masterpiece, Doc Hollywood recalls Robert Altman's M*A*S*H in more than its focus on the medical profession. It is well-paced and cleverly photographed, the dialogue is snappy, and the supporting cast — Woody Harrelson, David Ogden Stiers, Bridget Fonda, Eyde Byrd, and Bernard Hughes, to name but a lot — is superb. The film is a genuine "old-fashioned" love story: the two main characters don't even sleep with each other before the film's over. Don't worry, this is no Reagan-era yuppie escapade, but is instead a morality tale about roots, free will, and responsibility towards your fellow beings. There's no villain in this film, and it doesn't need one — it's about one man's soul-searching and his finding something he didn't know he was looking for: popularity and companionship in a place he didn't want to exist. Doc Hollywood is a road movie with a busted Porsche.

The film follows arrogant doctor Benjamin Stone (Fox) as he forsakes the emergency room meatball surgery he's been practicing in DC and heads across-continent to LA, where a posh plastic-surgery residency awaits. The pre-title sequences quickly establish that Ben is in serious need of a spanking, and his associates don't give him a sendoff as much as they send him packing. Ben's irritating qualities are perfectly captured by the prepubescent Fox, who is much more Doogie Howser than Marcus Welby. Ben packs his bags and throws them into his 1956 Porsche Speedster, setting off across country. Breezing along somewhere along the interstate, Ben overlooks a detour, skids by two cows in the road, and careens through a white picket fence, coming to a rest in Grady, South Carolina. The fence, of course, belongs to Grady's judge (Roberts Blossom, in a ponderously regal turn), who sentences the obnoxious Dr. Stone to 32 hours of community service at the local hospital.

Stone soon meets Lou, wonderfully portrayed by Julia Warner, a single mother who happens to drive the town's ambulance. Waking up after a night of moonshine with Grady's venerable female welcoming committee, Ben staggers outside for fresh air and collapses on the banks of the local mudhole. Lo and behold if his wet-dream fantasy doesn't materialize naked and dripping in front of him, as Lou emerges from the lake after a morning swim. It is at this point that Doc Hollywood had me set up; with a sigh I sat back and ruefully awaited for the film to fulfill the expectations its inane previews promised. But here's where the film belies convention — the beautiful naked woman who confronts Ben on the beach is no movie bimbo.

Lou is a real person, completely unconcerned about her nudity and a hell of a lot more at ease than the stupefied and staring Dr. Stone. Instead of an object of gratification for Ben or the audience, Lou is the subject, the character who moves the scene forward. After commenting on Ben's open-mouthed stare and effortlessly brushing away the first of his many crude lines, Lou calmly dons a shirt and walks off. The audience is denied any sort of scopophilic payoff and learns, through Ben's eyes, the relativity of power dynamics. In this scene, and throughout the film, Warner takes what could have easily been a stock role — Michael J. Fox's summer-movie babe — and upends it, fashioning Lou into a sophisticated and dynamic figure.

Warner is just sexy and genuine enough to almost appear human (considering she's a "movie star"), and she steals the movie from Fox with scarcely an effort. Unlike the oftentimes self-righteous message films of the 70s, second-generation 90s progressivism seems to have shifted onscreen with a lot less woodenness. Lou is a vegetarian animal-lover and doesn't have to suffer Grady's or the audience's ridicule: one scene, in which Ben and Lou stymie some local deer hunters, is not only politically correct but manages to make urinating in the outdoors as lovable and romantic as a roll in the hay.

Despite Lou's initial complete indifference to Ben, they soon develop a relationship, since without one the movie wouldn't have a point. By contemporary film standards, their romance is long and drawn out, a process which succeeds as does no recent film I've seen in conveying the passion the characters feel for each other. There's no leap of faith required here — their relationship takes shape before our eyes, and we understand the decisions they make, even when they're wrong. Though Fox isn't terribly convincing as an MD, he does well as a love-stricken cynic who has trouble with honesty. And Warner, as mentioned, is flawless throughout. The intensity the actors have for each other makes up twenty times over for the absent two minutes of obligatory sack time. Lou is a steadfastly devoted to Grady, and the result of their attraction is the film's crux, as the lure of Beverly Hills unexpectedly (for Fox) begins to feel competition from the kooky little town. To say that Grady is a one-horse town is one horse too many, although a pig figures prominently in the plot.

Doc Hollywood spoofs southern life without stereotyping it, all the while building a structure of integrity around Grady. This small South Carolina town — squash capital of the South, don't you know — feels real (even though location footage was shot in Florida), because it implies a history and community. The film moves sharply and decisively, cutting from scene to scene precisely at the right moment — though, in all fairness, there are three scenes too many in this film. It's shot pleasingly well for a comedy, and director of photography Michael Chapman shows a bona-fide understanding of the atmosphere and dappled sunlight of the American south.

In a film that makes most of the right choices, even the details are considered. Instead of following stock convention and populating Grady with the typical array of TV-sitcom white folks, Scottish director Caton-Jones gives the film depth and accuracy by integrating it. A good portion of the movie's charm lies in the humorous texture the town provides for the film's action, from the 58th-annual squash pageant to Melvin, the black auto mechanic and his German-reciting assistant. Without establishing Grady as a place that one truly could live in, Doc Hollywood's premise would fall apart.

Doc Hollywood is a surprising, enjoyable adventure; just funny enough to keep you interested, and serious enough to stay with you. If you've got some dollars to spare, take your date and sit down for a spell for some wholesome, unobjectionable fun. And come over to my place for corn in October.

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