`ARTICLE 99,' A CASE OF '60S ENVY - The Buffalo News
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Article 99

Rating:* * *
Rebellion and high jinks in a VA hospital.

Starring Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland, Cathy Baker, Forrest Whittaker and Lea Thompson. Directed by Howard Deutch.

Rated R, at the Boulevard, Holiday and McKinley Mall theaters.

"Catch-22," you remember from Joseph Heller's seminal black humor novel, was the catch that kept stressed-out World War II bomber pilots up in the air and flying long after they should have been replaced. They all wanted out of the war, of course, and were prepared to claim insanity if that's what it took. But the catch -- Catch-22 -- was that anyone who wanted out of the war that badly was obviously sane.

"Article 99," in the new movie of the same title, is the name given to the regulation that keeps medically needy veterans out of a Veterans Administration hospital. No matter what medical care a veteran needs, Article 99 says he can't get it if it wasn't an injury directly suffered in wartime combat.

In other words, you're in luck if your leg was shot off, but not if you're suffering from delayed stress syndrome from the Vietnam War. To get care for that, you may have to drive your Chevy pickup through the hospital doors.

"Article 99" is a hospital black comedy that actually has a grasp of the real world. It's about what happens when a heartless, soulless, '90s numbers-cruncher (John Mahoney) tries to ride over VA patients like a monster truck bouncing over the flattened metal carcasses of old Plymouths.

It's the old Hellerian story invented in the '60s -- the young, wisecracking, free-swinging humanists vs. the inhuman, uptight authoritarians.

Heller virtually invented the modern version of it in his modern masterpiece. Robert Altman merely kidnapped it briefly for the original "M*A*S*H," and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, not so briefly, cannibalized it in "The Americanization of Emily," "Network" and "The Hospital" from 1971 (if you rent that one now at the video store, you get the wonderful bonus of Diana Rigg making a strong bid for consideration in the sweepstakes for Single Most Intelligently Sexy Performance in the History of Movies).

In case you haven't noticed, the Bush years have seen a steadily growing platoon of Hollywood movies that are sneaking up on the heartless fatuosities of the Reagan era and screaming in their ears.

Social conscience is back. Social action is the next step. The '90s may have to hopscotch over a Grand Canyon to get to that one, but one never knows.

Unfortunately, in "Article 99" social conscience is back as a style, rather than an expression of outrage. It's like a politicized episode of "St. Elsewhere" but without the requisite wild, off-the-wall wit and manic mood swings. The cause is right, but it has no feel for the lunatic fringe of righteousness.

It is, in other words, a baby genre movie like "Young Guns" or "Blue City," one of those movies in which Brat Packers and Hollywood young buds try their hand at a genre their parents' and grandparents' generations were proficient at.

The genre this time, though, isn't the western or film noir, it's the crazy-institution movie.

It looks as if it was filmed through wax paper and edited with clamps and surgical tape, but you can't deny that it's plugged into a national mood about health care.

Kiefer Sutherland plays the novice doctor getting his trial by fire in the VA hospital. He's a would-be heart surgeon. He wants to identify illness and operate.

"Weed 'em out" is the policy of the hospital's administrator (John Mahoney). There's no point cluttering up his hospital with sick and injured people just because they once happened to serve in the armed forces. He is, his free-spirited underlings know, someone who "actually thinks he's doing the country a service every time he denies one of these guys an operation."

Ray Liotta plays the gonzo and grizzled heart surgeon who has figured out a way to beat the system and actually provide medical care for the needy veterans -- or a system for housing them until the rules change. Forrest Whitaker, Cathy Baker and Lea Thompson play the Young Stethoscopes who have enlisted in his gang.

Eli Wallach has a nice turn as an alumnus of D-Day, class of Omaha Beach.

"Article 99" is a sort of half-baked attempt by young people with an advanced case of '60s envy to get an old genre back. The effort is touching in a way, and reasonably funny sometimes, too. But "St. Elsewhere" did it better -- and we won't even mention Heller and Chayefsky.

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