Presumably due to the alleged post-Avatar fame factor of Zoe Saldana, this 2006 movie has just hit selected theaters in the United States. Certainly, there can be no other reason for any distributor (in this case, Freestyle Releasing, who also brought us Dragon Wars, The Collector, and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) to invest in what plays like a student film out of Tisch by some spoiled undergrad whose parents unquestioningly paid full tuition just to keep their kid out of their basement. As such, The Heart Specialist appears to be inspired by hospital-based television dramedy, but production values are exceedingly low to the point that this crap would never even make it onto daytime television. While a bare-bones approach isn’t unusual for a small-budget labor of love, this movie doesn’t even bother with opening titles, so the shift from opening previews to the actual movie is rather abrupt and ominously forecasts a lack of attention to detail that persists throughout every facet of the production.
The movie itself follows a rather disjointed storyline involving a physician education program at a South Floridian hospital. Screenwriter/director Dennis Cooper, himself a real-life physician, focuses upon the life of residents (from a black perspective) as they struggle to hold personal lives while working ungodly hours. The titular character, Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris), a.k.a. “Dr. Z,” is a heart/lung specialist and head resident of Memorial Hospital. He also, oddly, moonlights as a stand-up comedian at Club Flush, which is the only African American-based comedy club in the metro area. In his funnyman capacity, Dr. Z’s routine includes bawdy discussions of bedside manner and prostate exams, for which his audience howls in appreciation (not because the jokes are funny but because that’s what the script tells them to do). Somehow, Dr. Z has managed to combine both of his professions in the name of research; he’s got a hunch that laughter can speed up patient recovery times, and he’s also writing a book to that effect. In fact, Dr. Z is so convinced of both the scientific validity and mainstream appeal of his theory that he’s already declared himself “the next Michael Crichton.”
During his hospital rounds, Dr. Z develops a soft spot for one promising intern, Dr. Ray Howard (Brian White), who must not only learn valuable lessons in medicine and be schooled in “the ways of the flesh” (actual dialogue) but also those all-important matters of the heart. At first, Ray will have none of that nonsense, and why should he? Not only does he hail from Harvard Medical School but also has a way with the ladies; that is, if one can equate his latest boastworthy feat, posing as “Glucose Ray” (“It’s like Sugar Ray, but medical.”) in a beefcake calendar, with a bedside manner. Actually, Ray lacks empathy with patients and women alike. He treats the former like organisms and the latter like disposable razors. Now, the only woman in the entire production who is off limits to Ray is Donna (Saldana), a ward nurse and Dr. Z’s creative collaborator/sort-of-girlfriend. Her role in the narrative seems pointless other than being an impossibly pretty temptation to Ray as well as showing off her nasty scalp staples (a complete tangent), but Ray doesn’t sweat her rejection of him, since there’s a bizarre overabundance of really hot chicks at Memorial Hospital. So much for believability.
While The Heart Specialist spends the first two-thirds of its duration as a hospital-based romantic comedy, the final act veers into melodramatic territory to such a degree that the cast might have accidentally plucked up a different script. Fortunately, none of the operatics are memorable, and most of the movie follows the comedy adventures of Dr. Z. and his strange friendship with the unrepentant lothario. Speaking of which, it’s rather odd that a main character spends much of his time getting laid without any sexy evidence other than the regular sight of Ray under the sheets following his latest conquest. The film’s R-rating comes courtesy of an intermittent supply of blood and bodily fluids, culminating within its most disgusting point when Dr. Z and Ray save the life of a party guest by sucking and spitting the vomit out of her airway. Not only does this sight revolt, but it’s also completely unnecessary and doesn’t add any sense of realism to a script that doesn’t even bother with medical topics except as a framing device.
Naturally and since we’re talking about a mostly black cast, the obligatory Tyler Perry comparison falls upon The Heart Specialist, which ducks safely out of drag queen territory and also takes great care to make sure that least a few of the “white people” are not entirely loathsome. Then again, these characters are limited to a few of the audience members within Club Flush who, as a paid visual laugh track, are programmatically laughing at Dr. Z’s stand-up routine. Now, any character with an actual name that just so happens to be white also happens to be a douchebag extraordinaire; specifically, the two white doctors on staff — Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin) and Dr. Propper (David S. Lee) — spend their entire working lives abusing and humiliating the interns for sport.
Other than that, there’s not much that I can tell you about The Heart Specialist without revealing the tragic revelation that inevitably results in Ray’s shift of attitude. The movie neither touches nor enrages and amuses only in very small doses with a complete waste of a few familiar faces popping in for very minor roles: Mya as Valerie, Ray’s ex-girlfriend who’s trying to retrieve their sex tape; Ed Asner as Mr. Olsen, whose wife (Irene Tsu) is the aforementioned party puker; Marla Gibbs as an oversexed bipolar patient who strategically goes off her meds to surround herself with sexy doctors in the ER; and Jasmine Guy as Madonna’s enraged gristle (seriously, don’t ask). There’s also a vaguely amusing turn by Kenneth Choi as the atypical token Asian resident, who might be the only reason this film isn’t a complete disaster; in every other regard, The Heart Specialists gamely skates right up to the edge of the cliff.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.