Directed By: Marisa Silver
Screenplay By: Larry Ketron, Jeb Stuart
Story By: Larry Ketron
Produced By: Laurie Perlman, Cathleen Summers
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Diane Lane, Jimmy Smits, Jack Gwaltney, Laura San Giacomo, Norma Aleandro, Jane Adams
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes
Review Date: August 27, 2010
Soap operas are a popular television staple because they are accessible, mindless, and are forgotten by the time tomorrow’s episode airs. Vital Signs, Marisa Silver’s sappy medical drama, mimics many of the qualities one could find in a generic soap opera. It has a plot you see coming from a mile away, lacks any real depth, and leaves no lasting impression. It also contains a cast of characters so good-looking you swear you must be watching a work of fiction. This group of residency students, who lack sleep, nourishment, and a social life are about as charismatic and likable as “The Situation” at a Jersey Shore themed frat party. In other words, there’s no way its grounded in reality. Suspend your disbelief on this one and you’re bound to find a uniquely directed and entertaining feature.
The proceedings take place at Central L.A.’s Medical residency program, purveyed by the hammy but reliable Dr. Redding (Jimmy Smits). There are so many plot lines its difficult to count: There are Michael Chatham’s (Adrian Pasdar) adamant aspirations for gold status, to the dismay of his toughest competitor, Kenny Rose (Jack Gwaltney), and to the joy of the budding and melodramatic Gina Wyler (A stunning Diane Lane). These are the two most developed and interesting story lines, and take up a large chunk of the run time. The banter between Michael and Kenny grows from abrasive to warm, and witnessing the change is a testament to solid albeit utilitarian acting. The same goes for Michael’s relationship with Gina, which is sure to make you think twice before you pull the hospital sheets up to your chin.
Supporting roles are given to Laura San Giacomo, who puts you to sleep with her tone-deaf performance as Kenny’s wife. She’s perfectly boring, so its no wonder Kenny ignores her and spends every waking moment in the hospital. Jane Adams and Tim Ransom are great as the friends who take it one step to far: definitely don’t sleep with your residency partner who also happens to be your roommate. While their scenes are strong together, the script rushes their relationship and turns what could have been a tenderly humorous experience into filler material. Finally, there is Norma Aleandro’s captivating turn as a cancer patient who guides the charming, handsome Michael from an overly efficient, by-the-books practitioner into a relatable doctor. This film has it all, but it comes at a cost.
In addition to these story lines, there are more that pepper the narrative to varying degrees of flavor. The writer crafted compelling portraits of the characters, but fails to fully flesh them out. As a result, we have about six movies in one. All of them are actually pretty good, but they all feel superficial and somewhat “expedited”. It was disappointing, because I really liked what I found in this film.
Technically, the film is a little superfluous. Though the lighting and cinematography are sharp and evocative, there’s no reason to employ swooping dolly and crane shots within the confines of the hospital. In Marisa Silver’s eyes, an appendectomy is as intense as defusing a bomb.
Overall, the film is really appealing but not particularly memorable. If only writers Larry Ketron and Jeb Stuart had the courage to abandon one or two of the story lines, I believe Vital Signscould have escaped the predictability and familiarity that condemned it to the bargain bin. Regardless, give it a shot.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.