“The Heart Specialist” is DOA. A ploddingly paced and tonally dissonant mix of broadly played sitcom-style humor and shameless heartstring-yanking, this long-shelved indie has been dropped into a limited theatrical run much like a terminally ill patient might be checked into a hospice. After its inevitable B.O. flatline, expect a quick transfer to Redbox kiosks.
Writer-director Dennis Cooper (a TV vet whose credits include, not surprisingly, “Chicago Hope” and “St. Elsewhere”) borrows freely and indiscriminately from dozens of hospital-set scenarios about eager young medical residents and their inspiring and/or demanding mentors. Indeed, just about the only thing that sets “Heart Specialist” apart in its genre is the racial makeup of its cast: Most of the major characters, including the three leads, are African-American.
Ray Howard (Brian White), aptly described as “a playa in a white coat,” is a Harvard Medical School grad and indefatigable lothario who follows a sexy ex-girlfriend to South Florida, and winds up in residency at a less-than-prestigious teaching hospital. Very early in his internship, he tries to put some smooth moves on Donna (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful nurse. But she’s already attached to Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris), the eccentric chief resident who just happens to be one of Howard’s instructors.
Zachary, whose own medical education evidently included multiple viewings of “Patch Adams,” is a dedicated proponent of using humor to help heal patients. And the funny business continues even when he’s not on call: He moonlights as a standup comic (the pic pauses periodically to showcase his unexceptional act) and plans to incorporate his best material into a book Donna is helping him write.
Predictably, Howard evolves into a much nicer person (and renounces his horndog ways) after learning life lessons from the seriously funny chief resident. Unfortunately, and also predictably, there’s a tragic undercurrent to all this jocularity.
Despite game performances by the three leads, and fleeting appearances by familiar faces in supporting roles, “Heart Specialist” comes off as the sort of amateurish trifle that often fills schedule gaps at third-tier film festivals. The only real laughs are generated by joking allusions to “Star Trek,” and those gags are amusing only because of the presence of Saldana, who followed this pic (reportedly completed in 2006) with a prominent appearance in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot.
In a similar vein, it’s more than a little jarring to hear Howard and other characters making so many references to the late Michael Crichton, all the while indicating that the noted doctor-turned-author (who died in 2008) is alive and well and still cranking out bestsellers. But, really, that’s not the only sign that this stale concoction long ago exhausted whatever shelf life it may have had.