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Written by , January 15, 2011 at 11:49 pm 

The Heart Specialist is a likeable and sincere comedy centered around the friendship of two doctors. Arriving from Boston with a nearly-minted heartbreak and an embarrassing pin-up calendar spread, Ray “Glucose Ray” Howard (Brian White) is finishing his residency as an on-call intern at a Southern Florida HMO run hospital that is less prestigious than his medical school, which, of course, is Harvard. He is befriended and shown the ropes by Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris), who instills a level of compassion in Ray, which he would be impossible to learn from the business model of Dr. Z’s supervisor, Dr. Graves (Scott Pauline) pushes.

This film arrives in theaters with a double dose of bad luck: January is considered a dumping ground to supplement the Oscar contenders of the previous year, still hanging around in theaters. It also doesn’t help The Heart Specialist carries a copyright date of 2006. I suspect it was held back from theatrical release initially because of initial pacing issues, and is now seeing the light of day because it Zoe Saldana is a rising star. Trimming the fat and awkward amateurish moments that bog the story down and feel unnecessarily sitcom-like may have helped it see a faster release, but the film succeeds despite its initial shortcomings.

Consider the film’s opening: Dr. Z narrates a series of what appears to be disjoined comic moments and zany editing effects (such as page peel edits). Instantly these methods are a turn-off outside of eccentric video art and scream “amateur having fun on iMovie” – editing such as this is effective if it’s unnoticed. Once it abandons its voice-over narration and zany editing, and commits to a more conventional approach – the performances and warmth set in.

Early voice over awkwardly informs us that Dr. Z spends much of his time recording notes for research. He is developing a book, working on enhancing his stand up comedy career, and also conducting research into the effects of laughter on patient care – he’s a larger than life figure that doesn’t fit in managed care. (Remember the classic line from Fired Up!: “Managed Care, isn’t it ironic, he never managed to care for me”)

Dr. Z’s notes are transcribed by a hospital secretary, Donna (Zoe Saldana), and we are told from the opening credits that the film is “based on the audio tapes of Dr. Sidney Zachary” (the film is a work of fiction from best I can tell). Written and directed by Dennis Cooper, who formerly wrote for television shows such as Miami Vice and Chicago Hope, he clearly knows the territory well.

Though the film’s conclusion rings predictable, Cooper is talented at juggling several balls at once. He provides us with a careful insight into the lives of medical residents, administrators and employees working in the for-profit system. There is care and compassion shown but the work isn’t taken home, in fact we barely see anyone’s “home” during their 80-90 hour workweeks. The film is a critique on the inefficiencies in the system and the disparity in care amongst several hospitals in the area.

Fascinating is the balance between emotional detachment required to perform an operation (or in one instance watch a patient die due to a mistake made at the hospital) and interpersonal relationships. Amongst those with insurance or means that allows for choice, “care” is now a selling point. This level of detachment is a problem, especially in romance for a young good-looking Harvard educated doctor such as Ray, who like an HMO offers his services in small doses to nurses, volunteers and pretty young orderlies in a corner of the hospital he and Dr. Z have set up a “man cave” in.

The Heart Specialist is a fun, insightful comedy that hits many notes, misses a few, but is sincere enough in its convictions to succeed, even when it stumbles. And it’s much less creepy than Patch Adams.

Do you plan on seeing The Heart Specialist?

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