Producers: Molly Conners, Amanda Bowers, Jonathan Rubenstein, Ari Pinchot, Jane Oster, Vincent Morano, Benji Kohn, Bingo Gubelmann and Austin Stark Director: Austin Stark Screenplay: Austin Stark Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofalo, Dan Hedaya, Colman Domingo, Peter Kim, Patricia R. Floyd, Motell Gyn Foster and Kyle Moore Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
It’s hard to tell whether the coincidences or the ethical conundrums are more numerous in Austin Stark’s medical soap opera. Based on a 2006 play by Mark St. Germain, it’s been opened up a bit for the screen—some conversations are actually set on the hospital roof—but most remain confined to a conference room, a laboratory or an operating theatre, so the overall feeling is one of claustrophobia as well as verbosity and inflated self-importance.
The film shifts between two time frames. Most of the action falls in 2014, when a New York hospital is confronted by a dilemma when the patient for whom a heart has just arrived for transplant—that of a boy who died tragically when a car struck him as he rode his bike after saying goodnight to his girlfriend—died on the operating table.
There is only an hour to decide which of three alternative patients should receive the organ. One is a doorman who is supporting three daughters, but is overweight and bi-polar, and the second a childless widow with a nasty temper. The third candidate is a young man named Trip Granger (Maurizio Di Meo), an apparent drug addict whose wealthy father Emmett (Dan Hedaya) offers a $25 million grant to the hospital—not as a bribe, of course, but a possible inducement.
The “god committee”—the hospital board that will decide who will have a chance of survival—meets in emergency session. It’s presided over by hospital director Dr. Valerie Gilroy (Janeane Garofalo), but the dominant figure is renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Andre Boxer (Kelsey Grammer), who will perform the transplant. They’re joined by head nurse Maryanne Wilkes (Patricia R. Floyd), psychologist Allen Lau (Peter Kim), and two newcomers. One is Boxer’s disciple and secret lover, Dr. Jordan Taylor (Julia Stiles), and the other Father Dunbar (Colman Domingo), a lawyer turned priest who has been appointed by the hospital board to provide a new perspective.
Needless to say, opinions differ and debate ensues, often contentious. Boxer argues for pragmatism, and Taylor breaks with him to present a more emotional viewpoint. Lau has a personal reason for staying on the fence, while Dunbar plays devil’s advocate against any simply posed solution. Gilroy and Wilkes waffle, but in the end Granger’s potential gift carries considerable weight with them, though they’d never admit it.
In the middle of the deliberations, Taylor also springs a surprise on Boxer in one of their rooftop conversations; you can guess what it is. The final decision is also unsurprising.
Seven years later, we learn the ramifications of that choice. But for Boxer, things have changed radically. He is now heading a lab experimenting with the possibility of harvesting organs from animals for transplantation into humans, and is inching closer to success. But his own heart is failing. Resistant to having his name placed on the transplant list, he’s being pressured by his major donor—Granger, no less—to accept the offer of a heart procured for him on the black market as a condition for his project getting additional funding. As if that weren’t enough, circumstances between him and Taylor are even more complicated than they were in 2014.
“The God Committee” certainly raises important questions about organ donation and transplant politics. And from a technical perspective it’s a proficient piece of work, with an apt production design by Sally Levi, capable cinematography by Matt Sakatani Roe, good editing by Alan Canant, and a score by The Newton Brothers that doesn’t push too hard, though the use of the Meditation from Massenet’s “Thais” is rather on the nose.
But the film can’t escape the charge of melodramatic manipulation and over-plotting. It also invites acting that might work on the stage but often comes across as heavy-handed in close-up. Grammer is the worst offender. He certainly captures Boxer’s gruff cynicism, but subtlety does not come naturally to him, and in the end he tends to be simply stentorian. (He’s certainly not helped by some grandiose dialogue.) Stiles is blandly principled, and has little romantic chemistry with Grammer, while Hedaya and Domingo tend to play to the rafters, too. The rest of the cast is adequate, but not much more.
One can give the film credit for tackling some major issues in contemporary medical practice, but ultimately it handles them with about the same degree of insight you might find in any hour-long episode of a network TV hospital drama.