Michael J. Fox had a nice, decade-long run as an “It” star in Hollywood, the Canadian-next-door leading man who got first dibs on a lot of prestige projects.
That wasn’t just due to his TV fame, the sitcom stardom brought by “Family Ties.” His stepping into “Back to the Future” saved the movie, created a franchise, made Universal rich and him one of the most bankable stars of his era.
He took his shot at a Vietnam drama (“Casualties of War”), coming of age as an upper class addict (“Bright Lights, Big City”), an aspiring rocker whose sister (Joan Jett) has her eyes on the prize (“Light of Day”) and comedies and rom-coms of every variety.
But the most endearing and perhaps most enduring of those was the most easygoing. It’s the movie that best let us see how the-with-it TV actor always compensated for his lack of height by bouncing along on the balls of his feet, even when he was walking a pig.
“Doc Hollywood” took a corny and geographically indefensible premise — young surgeon leaves his DC residency for a prestigious LA plastic surgery clinic, and gets waylaid far off the interstate in rural Grady, South Carolina (never understood this pre-Waze navigation) — and threw a LOT of talent at it.
And the result seems literally effortless, with every single bite of low-hanging fruit delivering a grin.
Director Michael Caton-Jones broke out with the British sex-and-spies-and-politics drama “Scandal,” and was fresh off the sentimental World War II aerial combat thriller “Memphis Belle.” Why anybody thought he was right for a “Mayberry” throwback comedy in an idealized Sleepy Time Down South After Integration romantic comedy is its own story.
But the problem-solving exercise the project presented also serves up an Old School Hollywood solution. Upend stereotypical expectations. And employ every comical character actor and bit player you can get your hands on, the older the better.
Fox’s Dr. Ben Stone’s wrecks his vintage Porsche in the middle of BFE, S.C. But the African American garage owner (Mel Winkler, adorable) has got the hook-up on parts. This newfangled inventory aid called the Internet, y’see.
There’s small town chicanery afoot as the stern, self-serving judge (Roberts Blossom, whose credits went back decades and decades) sentences the doc to public service, filling in for their aged curmudgeon small-town sawbones (Barnard Hughes, who’d played a version of this character in a sitcom in the ’70s). The drawling, oozing southern charm mayor (David Ogden Stiers) makes his pitch, the first of many, for Ben Stone sticking around “The Squash Capital of the South.”
The cute single-mom ambulance driver (Julie Warner) isn’t interested in giving him a reason to stick around. The entitled local doofus (Woody Harrelson, hilarious in every scene) labels him “Doc Hollywood” and can’t wait for him to breeze on out of there, and the cranky old doctor’s crankier old nurse (Eyde Byrd, a stitch) isn’t that impressed with him either.
But Southern fried socialite Nancy Lee, vamped up by Bridget Fonda, who started her own run of star vehicles right after this yummy turn, is all over the doctor with the Hollywood dream.
Still, it’s the sassy, hard-nosed ambulance driver who turns Doc’s head, and the sparks set off are screwball comedy classic in style, modern in tone.
“I suspect that your version of romance is whatever will separate me from my panties.”
“No, I am just talking about dinner. Wear make-up, put on a dress. Panties are optional.”
Warner wasn’t just the right height to pair her up with Fox (Fonda also had that advantage). She had a touch of “spitfire” about her that shows up in her work, even today.
With the screen packed with “characters,” as if the film was a sitcom pilot trying to introduce everybody (Frances Sternhagen leads a cadre of familiar-faced townsfolk) in the coming series, the script was engineered to give everybody a funny moment.
Doc finds himself “paid” for his services by a family’s “pet” pig. But he needs cash to pay Melvin the mechanic to get the car fixed.
“You want to trade, the pig for the part?”
“If you can part with the pig.”
Sure, there’s pop music on the soundtrack, Patsy Cline singing Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” for a slow dance. But the sight gags are lightly underscored with the jovial wedding music from Prokofiev’s “Lt. Kije Suite,” used in literally dozens of comedies, from Alec Guinness to Woody Allen.
Yet the picture’s engaging, ongoing appeal rests squarely on the shoulders of Fox as straight man. He is personable, even at his big city snobbiest. The exasperating moments of his dilemma — played for broad laughs — just sort of roll off the character who’s maybe lost-his-s–t more than his share of times already. We see the people and the place working on Ben Stone in all the most formulaic and familiar ways. He sees it, too, and damned if he knows what to do about it.
Take the pig for a walk, I suppose.
Fox was headed back to TV shortly after this film outing, and five Emmys suggest that was always his first, best destiny. I recall driving down to Atlanta to interview him shortly before “Doc Hollywood” came out, getting up to leave, and stopping in the door on the way out, overcome by the “Hey, you’re done for the day, wanna grab a beer?” impulse. That’s never happened to me, before or since. That’s TV for you. The “stars” start to seem like people you know, just because of that boob tube’s intimacy.
The film’s giggles carry on right up to the picture’s finale. A perfectly-cast shallow LA aesthetic surgeon cameo, then Harrelson, in an over-the-top bit part, nailing “Cheers” star Ted Danson with one last one-liner, and love and squash triumphing in the end.
It may have been lightly regarded when it came out, but I think you can make the case that “Doc Hollywood,” a throwback comedy even then, stands the test of time better than most any rom-com of its era. And for all the Marty McFly love that’s clung to Michael J. Fox over the decades, this might have been his best outing, the epitome of his appeal and a movie he’ll be remembered for.
Rating: PG-13, a little racy, here and there.
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Julie Warner, David Ogden Stiers, Woody Harrelson, Eyde Byrd, Frances Sternhagen, Mel Winkler, Roberts Blossom, Barnard Hughes and George Hamilton.
Credits: Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, scripted by Laurian Leggett, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and Daniel Pyne, based on a novel by Neil B. Shulman.
Running time: 1:44