Film review: Gross Anatomy

Published: Saturday, Nov. 11 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

Before I saw it, someone described "Gross Anatomy" to me as a sort of "Paper Chase" in med school — and that's exactly what it proves to be.

Matthew Modine is the main character, and his romance with Daphne Zuniga after they become part of the same lab team is the central focus, but the film has an ensemble feel as it follows the ups and downs of five students in their first year of medical school.

The unfortunate title,"Gross Anatomy," may have audiences thinking this is "Porky's"-style hijinks with a med school setting, but in fact the title refers to the lab class — gross human anatomy — which occupies most of the students' time.

It is in this class that Modine, a working-class kid surrounded by second-generation aspiring doctors, and Zuniga, a workaholic who doesn't want to be distracted by romance, link up with the rest of their lab team — Modine's overzealous roommate, Todd Field; a married mother who unexpectedly becomes pregnant, Alice Carter; and stiff, comically strident John Scott Clough.

The requisite tough teacher with a secret is played by the ever reliable Christine Lahti; the lab instructor is Zakes Mokae (the activist cabbie in "A Dry White Season").

To their credit the cast members take characters rooted in stereotypes who could have seemed like little more than TV-style caricatures and invest rich traits in them so that they seem quite real. The director is Thom Eberhardt, whose previous work — "Night of the Comet," "Without a Clue" — hardly prepares us for this cheerful mix of comedy, drama, tragedy and dead bodies (dissected, but never too graphically). The story, however, credited to no less than six writers, is by-the-numbers predictable.

Of special note among the cast: Modine is quite charming in the lead, fulfilling his promise in "Married to the Mob." Lahti is devastating as the doctor who fears she has left out the most important part of her students' training over the years, and the film gets a dramatic boost each time she appears on the screen. And Clough is hilarious in what could have been a merely obnoxious role.

"Gross Anatomy" quite nicely recreates for the audience the fears and almost other-worldly atmosphere that accompanies being cloistered in a professional college. There are also lots of nice little touches that both endear the characters to the audience and add a sense of realism to the proceedings.

Despite the fact that there isn't much here that hasn't been depicted elsewhere, and Eberhardt's romantic and sentimental leanings, the director and his cast do a nice job of bringing heart and humor to the material at hand.

The film is rated PG-13 for a few profanities, implied sex between Modine and Zuniga and, of course, the aforementioned dissection of human bodies.

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