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Film review: Gray's Anatomy

Published: Friday, April 25 1997 2:54 p.m. MDT

Part of monologuist Spalding Gray's charm is his low-frills presentation. During all of his monologues he is simply seated behind a table in front of an audience. Thankfully, his storytelling skills don't lie solely in presentation.

The film versions of two of his monologues, "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Monster in a Box," didn't change the Gray formula much — in fact, both films often showed him as merely a talking head. Despite the challenges that provided, both films succeeded.

Now Steven Soderbergh ("sex lies & videotape," "King of the Hill"), a director of a different stripe, has tinkered with the successful Gray recipe. "Gray's Anatomy," the filmed adaptation of his 14th stage monologue, still revolves around Gray's dramatic and comedic reading as he sits at a table. But Soderbergh has added outside interviews and camera-focusing tricks that detract rather than add to the experience.

However, the show is still Gray's. It's to his credit that the film manages to come off like a dinnertime conversation with a friend — albeit a one-sided and long but very good and very funny one.

This monologue focuses (forgive the pun) on the fiftysomething writer/actor's vision problems in his left eye. Diagnosed with a "macula pucker," a bunching of the eye's rear lining, Gray decribes his neurotic attempts to find any solution to the condition without surgery.

Having been raised as a Christian Scientist in Rhode Island, he first attempted to get help from a Christian Scientist healer, but the healer refused to perform because Gray lacked a little something known as faith.

Similarly, efforts with a priestess friend (who got him to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony), a Vegas-style Filipino "psychic surgeon" and someone calling himself a "nutritional ophthalmologist" failed — after great expense of course — and he again turned to traditional medicine.

In between horror stories about his alternative medicine treatments, Gray relates other experiences and nightmares — all of them told with great humor (his New Age friends' cryptic question "What is it you don't want to SEE?" is retold for comedic effect but asked rather matter-of-factly).

As mentioned, Soderbergh pulls out a whole bag of tricks in an attempt to add some variety. But the inclusion of black-and-white interviews with people who have suffered eye problems interrupts the flow, and Soderbergh's constantly changing camera focus becomes annoying after about the 30th repetition.

"Gray's Anatomy" is not rated but would probably receive at least a PG-13 for some profanity and some vulgar and frank sexual talk.