The heartwarming story of a completely self-made African-American man’s rise to success certainly sounds timely, but “Gifted Hands” — the latest Johnson & Johnson Spotlight presentation — struggles to overcome the limits of its subject matter. Cuba Gooding Jr. frames the story by playing real-life neurosurgeon Ben Carson as an adult (two gifted youngsters portray him for much of the movie), but director Thomas Carter has to work overtime to make scenes of Carson studying and executing a breakthrough medical procedure interesting. Reasonably well made, the pic proves that not every uplifting story readily lends itself to such an adaptation.
Carson is introduced at the top of his game, as head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where he’s asked to separate German twins perilously conjoined at the head. As he labors to achieve that miraculous feat (and let’s face it, there wouldn’t be a movie if he botched things), the made-for flashes back into conventional biopic territory, revealing that Carson was a poor student, pushed to excel by his illiterate single mother (Kimberly Elise, in the film’s meatiest and strongest performance) and eventually climbed to the top of his field.
Adapted by John Pielmeier (“Agnes of God”), the movie keeps striking the same notes again and again: Ben underachieving, being reassured that he can do anything by mom and then scoring some surprise victory in which he’s praised instead of being scolded by an authority figure.
That familiarity would carry more weight if much of the movie didn’t focus so intently on Ben studying, which is a difficult endeavor to make cinematically engaging. And while Carter depicts the final surgery in gory detail, there’s just no creating suspense around that protracted sequence.
“Gifted Hands” deals sparingly with instances of racism that confronted Carson as he rose into the academic stratosphere, and those scenes do resonate. Yet neither the moments of triumph nor the setbacks can quite make the movie pop emotionally, while Gooding appears constrained by his limited screen time and the narrow demands of the part.
There’s nothing wrong with presenting another inspirational story, and kids could do far worse than embracing Carson’s against-all-odds accomplishments as a role model. From that perspective “Gifted Hands” is an understandable choice for both TNT and the sponsor. Yet in the final analysis, this is one of those viewing experiences that help remind you — more literally than most — why creating a feel-good TV movie isn’t brain surgery.