One quick way to depress yourself about the state of ethics in medicine is to Google the phase “organ donation scandal.” Germany to China, Bulgaria to India, this life-and-death access to transplantable organs has proven as easy to corrupt as dramatists long warned us.
One of those plumbing the depths of this medical, moral and financial dilemma was the veteran TV writer and playwright Mark St. Germain. Putting his play “The God Dilemma” on the screen attracted a good, if not top box office cast who deliver brilliant flashes of outrage and moments of pathos in writer-director Austin Stark’s revealing, moving and quietly gripping film.
Kelsey Grammer has his best role since “Frasier” as a conflicted, brooding heart surgeon who sits on such a committee at New York’s St. Augustine Hospital. Sitting with Dr. Boxer, passing judgment on who might be the best candidate for such transplants are testy Dr. Wilkes (Patricia R. Floyd), a sarcastic psychologist (Peter Kim) and the chief of medicine (Janeane Garofalo).
And on the day we’re introduced to this sage and sometimes impassioned debate on who has “the best chance for success,” “a good support system,” “lifestyle” (exercise, diet, drug-free), and who is otherwise “worthy” of a new heart is the new addition to the committee, a young cardiac surgeon who just got out of Dr. Boxer’s bed — Dr. Jordan Taylor (Julia Stiles). Oh, and this priest (Colman Domingo) shows up “representing the board.
The situation set up here is soap operatic, and the ticking clock they face (“Organ Expiration: 50 minutes” graphics) adds to that TV medical drama feel of it all. On top of all that, the hospital has had transplant failures, has lost its A-rated standing and is gambling, yet again, by implanting a heart into an older woman whose worthiness is more empathy than science based.
And then there’s the day’s big “new” decision, reshuffling the list of candidates based on their medical progress or decline.
The playboy son of a wealthy hospital benefactor (Dan Hedaya) might “move up in status” — if he’s drug free, if the girlfriend (Elizabeth Masucci) admitted with him verifies that the party boy is clean. A doorman and a rich old widow are also under reconsideration.
Dr. Boxer doesn’t think Dr. Taylor is “cut out for this,” and she does seem a tad idealistic about what they’re doing, “playing God.”
“I’ll be the first to step aside when God walks in here and votes,” Boxer growls.
The deliberations are never easy, the notion that “We could add years” to this doorman or that cranky old widow’s life, drug tests to evaluate, and then “other” considerations that come in — a $25 million “grant” that is dangled.
Also soap operatic, as is the pairing with Grammer with the much-younger Stiles.
But the story ably shifts back and forth between two timelines, the 2014 committee meeting that is Taylor’s first day voting on those decisions, and “seven years later,” when Dr. Boxer is on the verge of an animal-based xenotransplantation solution to the “worldwide organ shortage.”
Events in one timeline prefigure the other, and the ethical choices bandied about “then” have repercussions “now.” Have characters altered their views or seen their ethics soften?
Melodramatic? Sure. But most of the story threads are quite engrossing and sometimes touching. The tale is framed in the accident that makes a young man’s heart available, young lovers looking at the stars and planning for a future that one of them will never live to see.
Writer-director Stark keeps the histrionics to a minimum, and still almost everyone has her or his “moment” and makes the most of it. Stiles, the standout in the cast is impressive as always, but Garofalo and Grammer are the most surprising, giving us beautiful, nuanced moments of pained moral compromise or quiet desperation.
“The God Committee” is the sort of solid drama you get when actors you think you know are gifted with a script they can sink their teeth into, and make the most of their moment to shine.
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, graphic surgical scenes, smoking
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Julia Stiles, Janeane Garofalo, Colman Domingo, Patricia R. Floyd, Peter Kim and Dan Hedaya
Credits: Scripted and directed by Austin Stark, based on the play by Mark St. Germain. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:39