The Heart Specialist is about a doctor that doesn’t play by the rules, views life a little differently than everyone else, and imparts his years of wisdom on those he deems worthy. I'm talking about Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris), the chief resident of a less than prestigious South Florida hospital. He's been quietly keeping watch over the first year residents for quite some time, and has been recording his observations on a mini cassette machine. His girlfriend, Donna (Zoe Saldana), types his words, helping him along on his goal towards becoming the next Michael Crichton. He also jokes about what he sees at a local comedy club, which is part of his funded experiment to prove that laughter really is the best medicine.
He takes under his wing Ray Howard (Brian J. White), a Harvard graduate, a first-year intern, and a perpetual ladies man who can’t make a commitment. He’s also cold and distant from his patients, a professional man who refuses to get into their personal lives. This doesn’t sit well with Zachary, who was trained in Mexico and sometimes goes by Dr. Z. He learned everything he needed to know by making those emotional connections. Through cryptic passages of dialogue and reliably eccentric behaviors, he will take it upon himself to teach the young doctor how life should really be lived. He considers himself little more than a teacher’s guide, but isn’t that more or less how all self-appointed mentors see themselves?
I understand and appreciate what The Heart Specialist is trying to tell me, but I see no reason why it couldn’t have been told with some style. Watching this movie play out is a little like watching a movie-of-the week on cable; it looks cheap, has a limited number of settings and camera setups, specific shots seem like padding, and is saddled with a story that's rote, sappy, and predictable. The only way it breaks with tradition is that it features a relatively large cast, with Mýa, Jenifer Lewis, Method Man, Jasmine Guy, and even Ed Asner all making appearances at one point or another. They must have thought there was something worthwhile, here; maybe I’m being silly, but I’d like to think some actors are motivated by more than a paycheck.
Much of the problem stems from writer/director Dennis Cooper’s inability to decide on a tone. The film, intended as both a comedy and a drama, often times veers too far into both genres. Sometimes, he makes light of situations that are clearly not funny. Case in point: Marla Gibbs as Ms. Overwood, an aging bipolar patient who intentionally stops taking her lithium just so that she will be taken to the hospital. This is a serious problem, and yet Cooper reduces this character to comedy relief; she’s a bawdy and badly dressed nymphomaniac who hits on all the male doctors, including Howard, much to his chagrin. Is there something about this woman that I simply didn’t see?
She exemplifies the broad humor with which this film falls back on. Consider the moments Zachary’s stand-up material plays out visually, like when a big, gangsta-looking man cries like a baby at the prospect of getting a prostate exam. Part of what makes stand-up so entertaining, I believe, is that it requires the audience to use their imaginations. Other scenes are just plain bizarre, like when Howard falls asleep and has a sexual fantasy about Donna; in the annuls of sexual fantasies, I’ve never heard of one in which the man has an emotional epiphany and then actually refrains from having sex. Come on, Dennis. You should know that dreams don’t work like this, not even in the movies.
Now let’s go to the other end of the genre spectrum. Characters like Dr. Zachary are bound by a convention so overused that it has lost all ability to generate within me an emotional reaction. What was once heartfelt is now contrived and manipulative. The drama of Zachary’s personal mission is second only to his antagonistic relationship with Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin), a bitter old man who’s mean to all the interns and thinks he’s entitled to more money and respect. Characters like this add drama to the story without adding substance; their primary purpose is to make trouble for the leads to have the satisfaction of working through. Graves’ one-dimensional nature is exacerbated by his sidekick, an unnecessary and buffoonish German caricature played by David S. Lee.
Other characters, like the perpetually anxious intern Mitchell Kwan (Kenneth Choi) and Howard’s ex-girlfriend (Mýa), are completely unnecessary and contribute absolutely nothing, apart from an excuse for frivolous subplots. I suppose the message of The Heart Specialist is a good one, although one we've heard many times before, and usually in films that at least make an effort with its characters, plot, and balancing of tone. Maybe Cooper would have been better off making this into a movie-of-the-week; at least then, most audiences would have the chance to manage their expectations a bit. If not for the rising star power of Zoe Saldana, this probably would have never seen a theatrical release. Sometimes, I’m amazed at the films that find their way into theaters.