The Movie Archive

A Cut Above

US Title: Gross Anatomy

Movie Poster of A Cut Above

Directed by: Thom Eberhardt
Screenwriter(s): Ron Nyswaner, Mark Spragg
Starring: Matthew Modine, Christine Lahti, Daphne Zuniga, Todd Field, Alice Carter
Genre: Medical / Comedy
Year released: 1989
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 45m
Rating: 3 out of 10

I’m a fan of medical films and TV series. I persevered with ER, against my own better judgement, for much longer than I should have. And I liked Chicago Hope from the beginning, even before they made the very sensible move of adding Christine Lahti to their cast. I enjoyed Vital Signs, a medical comedy-drama based around the lives of med students, released around the same time as A Cut Above (known as Gross Anatomy in the US). But I didn’t like this film.

A Cut Above follows Joe Slovak (Matthew Modine) through his first year at medical school. Joe is a coaster and a scam artist: he’s smart enough to get by in life while doing the bare minimum and covering his shortcomings through telling people what they want to hear. I guess we’re meant to find Joe charming, devil-may-care or unconventional, but the biggest problem with A Cut Above is that they’ve built the whole film around him. Joe is so thoroughly unlikeable, so completely smug, self-obsessed and self-deluded, that you want to put him in traction by jumping up and down on him (and not in a good way).

Daphne Zuniga’s character, meanwhile, is the same character with the same character arc that she played in The Sure Thing (a vastly superior movie): uptight priss who cares more about work and order than anything else. Frankly, she’s the only character apart from Christine Lahti that I’d be happy to have tend to me when I was in hospital. You know what? Medical school is serious. People’s lives will literally depend on your knowledge one day. I would much prefer my doctors had paid attention in school.

Although the film is meant to explore the lives of several medical students, you don’t learn enough about any of them to care. There’s Joe’s roommate who can’t cope and turns to drugs, the married woman who has to choose between her family and her career and other people with problems that came straight out of the “how to make a college movie” handbook that I can’t force myself to remember. You’ve seen these characters played before and better, possibly by people you’ve actually heard of.

I don’t mind a film that draws on stock characters and stock situations. I could care less if a film has no star names. But this film is just so tired. The script is awful and the actors know it; even the walk-on talent look like they wish they were on some other movie. It’s sold as a comedy, but you’re hard pushed to ever raise a smile, and the ‘drama’ falls between trite and condescendingly preaching. The film just plods along, devoid of interest or tension.

As is often the case, Lahti is the one bright spot in the movie, transcending both dimensions of her character, as written, as the hard-nosed Professor, respected by everyone else, but Joe’s nemesis. If I were her, I’d have had him thrown out of my class for being an ignorant layabout, but that would have been a much shorter film. Although, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.