Critical Condition

(Michael Apted, USA, 1986)


Exam questions:

1. "It’s an original, not a genre piece" (Press Kit). Discuss.

Let’s see now. There is a scene where Richard Pryor acts crazy in a courtroom. A big guy who often gets angry and snarls mo-ther-fuck-er! A spineless doctor who finally opens his heart to Richard. Drippy West Coast muzak cueing the love interest, and disco funk for the end titles. Cool Latino sidekick (Ruben Blades?!). Fascistic chief administrator. Scene where Pyror almost has to perform an operation. A chase scene. A fight scene. A comment on hospital conditions these days. Theme of merry performance-principle giving way to the moral rule of truth, and hail that conquering hero!

There can be no doubt about it; this film is an original. Genre films are merely formulaic.

2. Decipher the film’s off-screen universe.

A lot of the action occurs just below the frame-line. Pryor zips and unzips his fly. A "helicopter junkie" has his balls horrendously squeezed by an intern. A baby, mid-birth, sticks its head out from between its mother’s legs and then puts it neck in. Is there an underlying logic to this I am not yet grasping?

3. Does the film have an edge?

Pryor is never actually made by the film to perform an operation. Nor is he made to do anything with his "great lady". The insane inmates are cute (one barks like a dog and bites the villain – Joe Dallesandro?!). The junkies become sturdy humanitarian workers. No major character fucks, kills or dies. Pryor stumbles comically throughout but clicks his act together like magic when a fire starts. Everybody learns to love and respect everybody else. Pryor rides off at the end in a speedboat, while his lovely lady waves to him. It’s a wild, wild film.

4. How – and why – was this film made?

How? Its press kit proudly boasts that the script went from melodrama to drama to comedy, and was then put in the hands of a director (Michael Apted) who angled it towards realism. This helps to account for those many telling details in which all minor characters behave in a severely psychological way while the star gives the impression of hamming (nervously, at that) into a private, invisible mirror. This is the kind of film in which everyone gets in their bit of good work for their next CV/Press Kit (Pryor: "I think it’s the best work in a comedy I’ve ever done.")

Why was it made? I give up.

MORE Apted: Coal Miner’s Daughter, Continental Divide, Enough, Extreme Measures, Incident at Oglala, Nell, 35 Up

© Adrian Martin April 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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