William Hurt has always been a dazzlingly cerebral, almost implosive actor. Everything about him the gray pallor and cold stare, the edgy smile, the feverish energy and speed with which he can spew out a monologue, even as his voice retains its gravelly, pent-up hush suggests a man at war with his own passion. In recent years, though, an oddball daze has settled over Hurt's intensity. In such movies as Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Broadcast News (1987), and The Accidental Tourist (1988), he's had the spaced-out aura of a man sleepwalking. So I'm pleased to report that his charismatic obsessiveness has returned in The Doctor. Directed by Randa Haines, who teamed up with Hurt on Children of a Lesser God (1986), the movie is a tearjerker, but an exhilarating one at once funny, dramatic, and beautifully observant and Hurt's wonderful performance lends it an unusual gravity.
When Jack MacKee (Hurt), a brilliant and arrogant San Francisco heart surgeon, prepares to cut into his latest patient, he's got ''Big Girls Don't Cry'' going full blast on the speaker system. For a few minutes, Jack is all deadpan tomfoolery, like the wisecracking surgeon heroes of M*A*S*H (''A real gusher,'' he murmurs derisively as the patient's blood spurts forth). Then, with only a minute or two to perform a vital procedure, his joking vanishes, and he snaps out an order to turn off the music.
The Doctor immediately lets you know that it's going to be about how surgeons really operate (in all senses of the word). Jack is a great doctor, yet years of cutting into patients, of treating human beings like meat, have coarsened him. He's acquired so much clinical distance that it now rules his personality. He no longer sees his patients as real, even as he's saving their lives; he no longer sees his wife (Christine Lahti) and son (Charlie Korsmo) at all. More than perhaps any movie before it, The Doctor captures the styles and attitudes of contemporary physicians, especially surgeons: the cool scientific bravado, the gallows humor, the abstracted sense of ''caring'' that allows some doctors to view their patients as subtly inferior beings. As Jack and his surgeon buddies (including a jaunty Mandy Patinkin) barrel down the hall, forming a kind of superstar boys' club, The Doctor reveals how compassion and ego can jockey for control of a physician's soul.
Early on, fate turns the tables on Jack. He is diagnosed with throat cancer and told that there's an 80 percent chance it can be cured with radiation therapy. If that fails, he'll have to go under the knife and risk losing his voice. Adapted from an autobiographical book by Dr. Ed Rosenbaum, The Doctor is about how Jack regains his compassion through his brush with disaster. In outline, the movie isn't that different from a bogus piece of uplift like ''Regarding Henry.'' Yet this is one of the most honest and understated sentimental movies in years. It's about a man who has stopped responding to what's in front of him, and about how he slowly opens his eyes.
Jack suddenly finds himself in the lowly position of being...a patient. As he discovers, and as anyone who has ever been hospitalized can attest, a modern medical center is at once the most maddening and the most comically democratic of institutions. With a few exceptions (say, U.S. Presidents), everyone is subject to the same bureaucratic inefficiency, the same wheelchair when you can walk perfectly well, the same cheery impersonality when the doctors make their rounds. Haines directs with a spry, delicate touch, capturing the full comic ghastliness of the experience. Though it's likely that a surgeon as prominent as Jack would get preferential treatment in certain quarters, his outrage at being reduced to one of the herd rings devastatingly true; it anchors the entire drama. The cruel irony of Jack's ordeal becomes an extension of how most of us feel if a serious illness strikes that we've been made the plaything of some prankster god.
The Doctor is far from flawless. When Jack meets a fellow patient, June (Elizabeth Perkins), who is suffering from an advanced brain tumor, the two talk, bond, and take a mystical trip to the desert. We're to understand that Jack can no longer open up to his wife. Yet even if that's true, the marriage needs to be sketched in more. The vibrant Christine Lahti is saddled with a drastically underwritten part; her character just seems like a well-meaning (and slightly shrill) noodge. And June doesn't have much to do except teach Jack that Life Is Worth Living. Still, if there are moments when The Doctor is too pat, Hurt's performance is fully alive. He brings an inquisitive fear and yearning to even the most underimagined scenes; by the end, we feel we've been through a highly specific journey of emotional discovery. The Doctor is that rare good thing, a weeper that respects its audience. A-