Theme Song: In the middle of the movie, a reggae-punk band named The Rebel Rockers plays two songs. I’ll explain why later, but here is one of those songs.
It’s called Hospital Ladies. I can’t find much else out about The Rebel Rockers because apparently that’s the same name of the band in some new Power Rangers series. Did you even know there were still episodes of Power Rangers being produced? Don’t you feel disgusted now?
Interesting Dated References: Offering to make a woman Baked Alaska and then immediately getting into a terrible car accident to get out of making said dessert.
Best Line: There’s lots of ethical talk about Right To Life/Right To Die issues in this movie, but nothing is said that is worth highlighting.
Social Context: Whose Life Is It Anyway? was a popular play, which was made into a movie. It deals with one man’s quest to die.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Ken Harrison, a successful artistic sculptor who has an awesome loft and a cool vintage car (totally implausible). He ends up paralyzed from the neck down and then proceeds to fight for his legal right to die, while the hospital contends he be kept alive. His justification is that since he can no longer create his super awesome sculptures that afforded him an awesome lifestyle, he should die.
I’m all for ethical dialogue about important social issues played out on film, but how are we supposed to believe an individual can make a good living as an artistic sculptor? Have you ever met a financially successful sculptor? Better yet, big picture here, have you ever even met a financially successful artist of any kind? They don’t exist. It’s a lie.
Summary: So Harrison’s life couldn’t be better. He installs some ridiculous public art piece and makes dinner plans with his professional (non-exotic) dancer girlfriend, Pat. He’s enjoying his life so much he forgets to pay attention to the road.
He subsequently drives into an out-of-control semi-truck. He sort of ducked at the last minute and the paramedics are able to cut him out of the vehicle. Some woman who is either a gore fetishist or reporter walks up and takes a picture of his bloodied head as they load him into an ambulance.
Later at the hospital, John Cassavetes shows up as the smug, pro-life doctor who repeatedly insists Harrison be kept alive. To stress this fact, he slaps Harrison in the face and tells him to, “Fight!” Direct slap, right to the face of someone with a spinal injury.
Cassavetes showboats in front of a bunch of interns, one of whom is none other than Jeffey Combs, the re-animator in The Re-Animator. This is one of his first screen appearances. Somewhere in there we learn that Harrison’s injuries have resulted in full paralysis from the neck down.
Over the course of like 30 minutes, six months go by as we watch Harrison interact with the hospital staff. He’s very affable as they check for bed sores, shave his neck, sexually harass each other, etc.
After the new nurse, Mary Jo (Kaki Hunter of Porky’s-franchise fame), lets Harrison fall out of bed, Cassavetes comes in and lets him know he’ll probably never walk again. This sends Harrison into a tailspin as he was unaware of the fact that he was never going to walk again. When he starts refusing his Valium pills, Cassavetes starts injecting him against his will while debating the ethics of forcing him to stay alive.
The Valium must be the good 80s dosage because it makes him have a super erotic dream about Pat, in which she dances around clothed, then semi-nude, then fully nude. But the dream only sends him into a deeper depression and he decides to break up with Pat, despite the fact she has been visiting him every goddamn day for six months. Pat is played by Janet Eilber who should have been in more movies.
It’s pretty fucking bleak and depressing from here on out. When she shows up in the morning, he tells her to leave and start a new life because all she does is remind him of how things were and how things will never be the same again.
Harrison then spends the next 30 minutes telling various hospital staff members he wants to die. His main gripes are that he can’t create art (which he was apparently super awesome at) and can’t have sex (which he was apparently super awesome at).
Eventually he hires a lawyer named Carter Hill to help him die when he wants to die. Hill is played by Bob Balaban with real hair. Hill proceeds to debate Cassavetes about medical ethics.
Then there’s padding and subplots. The direction by John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Short Circuit) is capable, but I assume the pressures of adapting a play to the big screen resulted in the addition of some filler because a lot of this is unnecessary: Cassavetes conspires to have a psychiatrist sign off on having Harrison involuntarily committed; Clare (the second-in-command female doctor, played by Christine Lahti) goes to visit Pat (the ex-girlfriend) at Harrison’s awesome loft that she is still living in; Harrison starts to rant a lot and become a little unhinged; Lawyer Hill tries to wine and dine Clare under the guise of discussing the case; and most ridiculous of all:
John the orderly and Mary Jo the nurse take Harrison to the hospital basement to smoke weed and watch John’s band perform their questionable mix of reggae and punk with a full lighting rig and P.A. system. Right around 1981 Dreyfuss was in the middle of a huge coke habit which might explain why he looks particularly flushed and doped up during this scene.
The next day after a comically over-exaggerated weed hangover (which was probably a real-life coke hangover for Dreyfuss), Harrison makes his way to the informal courtroom showdown, which takes place in a room inside the hospital. Cassavetes makes his point that life is precious and Harrison is depressed and not thinking clearly. Harrison makes his argument that life is self sustaining, and since he is not, he should be allowed to die when he dies.
After standing around awhile in the snow, the judge decides in Harrison’s favor. Everyone gets somber after that. In a nice show of acceptance, Cassavetes tells Harrison he can stay in the hospital and die so that he’s around friends in a comfortable environment. He even promises to stop all medication and food service. When asked why, Cassavetes says, “In case you change your mind.”
That night John the orderly tucks Harrison in, and Clare comes up and tries to kiss him. Then there’s a long slow tracking shot as Harrison sits in bed and smiles at one of his sculptures. We can assume that 5 to 9 days later he died by passive-aggressive suicide. Okay, so that was pretty grim, as expected.
Poster and Box Art: The poster for this soul-crushing movie is simple and reserved. Bonus points for Dreyfuss kind of looking like Ernest Hemingway.
However, this alternate poster is way off base! A loving drawing of a couple frolicing together? Muted-pink color? Loose threat about, “having a lot of laughs before you cry?” They seriously tried to market this as some type of romantic comedy which is wholly absurd and ridiculous. There is maybe five minutes of this movie that is like a romantic comedy.
Availability: There is a DVD release that features a restored print and directors commentary. In the commentary Badham reveals he wanted to release the film in black and white. That is a terrible idea and would have made an already bleak movie even more miserable. You can stream this movie on Amazon and on iTunes, but you may want to watch something more uplifting like Hitch.