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Coma: Sleep No More

by Ethan Alter September 4, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Coma</i>: Sleep No More

Having grown up in the '80s, I have fond memories of watching the Michael Crichton-directed movie version of Robin Cook's best-seller Coma during its endless run on cable. While by no means a classic of its particular subgenre (the science-fiction laced medical thriller; see also The Andromeda Strain and the recent Splice), that 1978 film is a lot of fun and almost compulsively watchable, one of those potboilers that you stumble upon a few minutes of and feel the urge to stick around until the end. Since the original is admittedly dated in some respects, though, I was looking forward to A&E's new two-part miniseries, which updates Cook's book to the present day. With the heavy-hitting cast (Lauren Ambrose! Geena Davis! Ellen Burstyn!), experienced production team (including Ridley Scott and his recently departed brother Tony), and good source material, I began watching the first installment -- which aired last night, Part 2 premieres this evening -- anticipating, if nothing else, a solid Labor Day diversion.

What I got instead was a poorly written, embarrassingly acted, generally laughable would-be thriller that, for a second, made me doubt my enjoyment of the original film. But no, Crichton got it right -- it's this version that goes wrong, turning an elegant mystery into a muddled mess. (Having already seen the second installment, I'm sorry to say that it actually makes less sense than the first half.) Here are the biggest questions I'm left mulling after this botched remake operation.

1) Why Doesn't Lauren Ambrose Get Fired?
Obviously, the series goes out of its way to come up with reasons why Ambrose's intrepid medical student, Susan Wheeler, isn't immediately canned from her internship at Peach Tree Memorial hospital, where all the coma-related hijinks are going down. For starters, she's the granddaughter of a legendary Atlanta heart surgeon, whom many of the doctors at Memorial worked with and admired. Secondly, she wins a powerful friend in Dr. Theodore Stark (James Woods), who protects her when the hospital ethics committee first attempts to fire her for her insubordination and unauthorized investigation into the institution's rampant coma cases. And maybe I wouldn't be as bothered by this if there was any hint that Susan had the makings of being a competent doctor. But from practically the first scene, she shows little interest in or aptitude for performing her assigned medical tasks, instead devoting her time to badgering a nurse into granting her access to personal files (and likely getting her fired in the process) and interrogating other doctors while they're trying to eat lunch in peace, all in the name of finding answers to the coma epidemic. (Not surprisingly, she turns out to be as bad a private investigator as she is a med student.) Ambrose is generally a good actress, but here she wanders around looking perpetually dazed and confused... not the kind of expression you want to see on the face of somebody who is aspiring to be a doctor.

2) What's Up With Geena Davis's Jaw?
This Oscar winning actress works so infrequently these days, it's always nice to see her whenever and wherever she pops up. But I have to admit that I spent much of her screentime in Coma wondering why the lower half of her face was so rigid, to the point where she seemed to be having trouble opening her mouth to enunciate her dialogue, something I don't recall from her earlier performances. Was this a character quirk or a Morning Randolph-from-Episodes situation? Either way, it was distracting. I half expected Davis to unlatch her jaw at some point and swallow a rat, V-style.

3) Why Is Mercy So Depopulated?
For a supposedly prestigious hospital in a major metropolitan area, there don't seem to be an awful lot of patients -- or even medical staff -- at Mercy. Most of the time, Sarah and her small team of interns seem to be the only folks in the joint. Perhaps the patients and doctors are staying away due to all the comas or maybe it's because the place is always so dimly lit, which means they're actually there but hidden in shadows. Most likely it means that the production just spent too much money on salaries for all the lead actors to be able afford much in the way of extras. Speaking of that...

4) How Much Did Richard Dreyfuss Get Paid?
Not enough to care about this movie one iota apparently. The third Oscar winner in the cast (alongside Burstyn and Davis) has been cashing paychecks and coasting on his reputation for years now and he phones in yet another performance as Sarah's mentor Professor Hillside. This character wasn't in the original film and his presence here only makes sense (and even then, not really) in the wake of tonight's finale. Mainly he's around to give A&E one more boldfaced name to hype and Dreyfus's total lack of effort indicates that he's well aware of his own superfluousness.

5) Does Jessica Lange Know That Ellen Burstyn is Ripping Off Her American Horror Story Performance?
Okay, so Lange doesn't have a patent on the whole "crazy, old Southern lady" thing. Still, it's hard to listen to Burstyn -- who plays the possibly unstable head of the mysterious Jefferson Institute where all the coma patients go -- yammer on in that lilting Georgia accent without immediately flashing to Constance Langdon's lunatic ramblings. If Ryan Murphy ever decides to return in Constance in a future American Horror Story series, at least he's got the perfect person to play her older sister.

6) How Did This Go So Wrong?
Well, they picked the wrong director to begin with. A doctor himself, Crichton had a knack for depicting how a hospital operates and made even the most outlandish medical mysteries seem vaguely plausible. This Coma, on the other hand, was directed by Mikael Salomon, the TV hired hand who most recently helmed Lifetime's Blue Lagoon reboot, a movie that's actually more coherent (and better lit) than this one. Salomon strains to create an aura of dread and tension and falls completely and utterly short. The film's streamlined running time was another point in its favor, boiling down Cook's book into a tight under-two hour runtime. With four hours to fill, this version spins its wheels an awful lot. Tonight's finale, for example, contains a chase sequence that seems to last an eternity and ultimately accomplishes little beyond eating up screentime. I wouldn't go so far as to say that watching this Coma will put you in a coma... but it does come close.

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