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Just Brilliant Enough: A Review of David O. Russell’s DOCTOR COMPLICATED

Director: David O. Russell; Cast: Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Meryl Streep, Scoot McNairy, Imogen Poots, Boo Boo Stewart

The only thing more challenging than being a hero is being an antihero, otherwise known as a “normal asshole.” With the rise on television of troubled, complex white male antiheroes who struggle to make even basically moral decisions, films have been scrambling to keep up with the trend. The trend of heroes who carry flaws, faults, and fears but ultimately make the right decisions has ended, giving way to protagonists who carry flaws, faults, and fears and then decide to push old ladies down a flight of steps or, in some especially complex gray areas, watch the old lady shuffle towards the stairs without stopping her from falling. Movie-going white males no longer have to worry about looking up to role models or living up to a character symbolic of a high standard; they can now leave the theater with a spring in their step, saying, “I’m a pretty great person, having never organized a cockfight to distract two warring drug lords while I steal their supplies and seduce both their innocent daughters at once.”

DOCTOR COMPLICATED, the newest film from David O. Russell, continues the antihero trend by calling back to the heyday of Hollywood antiheroes: the 1970s, back when a complicated protagonist you struggle to root for was an artistic choice and not the logical thing to do if you want reviews to refer to you as “brave” and “adult.” By setting his film in the 70s, Russell also makes it that much easier to have a mostly white-male dominated cast, since any complaints that there’s no ethnic diversity or substantial female roles can be explained away by pointing out that there was tons of racism and sexism back then, not like today.

And so, the white male staff of Crossroads Hospital serves dutifully under chief surgeon Dr. Marty Martinovsky (Cooper), who has such a notorious reputation for being difficult to root for and having mysterious personal stakes that not everyone can relate to that his nurses and patients alike refer to him as “Doctor Complicated.”  His wife, Broomhilda (Streep) tries to be supportive through silence and give support through meaningful glances, but Marty is so damn complicated that he can’t fully digest her unconditional respect, responding to it with insults like, “What kind of a name is Broomhilda anyway?” until she finally snaps and delivers her sole line in the film, “I love you a lot no matter what!”

A brooding antihero has to be really good at something specific, and so Doctor Complicated is one of the world’s leading brain surgeons, so uniquely gifted that he can both operate on a patient and wipe hot tears from his eyes as he thinks out loud about how badly he wants to cheat on his wife, and how much he’s going to. In one stirring scene, he points to an exposed frontal lobe and says, “This is the part of the brain that carries the decision-making process. I’m so complicated, I think I should operate on my own sometimes.” His surgical team nod and shake their heads in a perfectly divided symmetry, leading the nearest nurse to shout, “You’re brilliant, Doctor, but you’re also damned complicated!”  before fainting.

Doctor Complicated is also good-looking and wealthy, which makes you that much more likely to give him the benefit of a doubt, no matter how often he’s caught drinking the alcohol he’s supposed to sterilize his hands with.

Cooper delivers a performance that can be best described as “just brilliant enough.” His acting chops are pushed especially hard by the second-act arrival of Christian Bale’s heart surgeon you love to hate and then consider your own fragmented value system against, Dr. Devlin Pomp. Bale whispers and glowers in a role best described as “very incredibly serious.” With one of the most dramatically effective introductions in recent memory, Dr. Pomp appears to be telling his patient there’s something wrong with her heart until the camera pans around to reveal he’s actually talking into a mirror.

The competition between Doctor Complicated and Doctor Pomp escalates as they dare each other to see which one can justify their own actions the most. Complicated willfully replaces a young patient’s brain with a monkey brain and justifies it as a scientific breakthrough; Doctor Pomp replaces the monkey’s brain, then pushes the monkey down a flight of steps because, as he explains, that monkey got a taste of being human and no simple, non-complicated creature deserves that kind of exquisite pain.

The film culminates in a shocking, twisty finale that involves lots of enormously ambiguous moral situations, some of which involve guns being aimed at patients that may or may not be serial killers, and a lot of recreational drug use that may or may not make them more competent surgeons. However you feel about the complex conclusion of this film, it’s certainly designed to have you leave the theater talking, mostly about how relieved you are that you’re neither an antihero nor a hero-hero, just a perfectly nondescript human who has no lives in his or her hands, least of all their own, and whose most complex decisions take place in a KFC drive-thru line.


Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.