Actor and director Albert Brooks can play a love-struck neurotic (Network News) or a hard-boiled crook (Drive).
In Critical Care, a 1997 movie directed by Sidney Lumet, he plays a consistently drunk hospital administrator who is insistent upon proof of health insurance before any patient is treated. “It’s called revenue!” he shouts at young resident Werner Ernst, played by James Spader.
Dressed like Mark Twain aping Groucho Marx, Brooks’s Dr. Butz is an advisor to Ernst, who is swept up in a battle between two half-sisters who are fighting over the care (or perhaps estate) of their comatose father. When Ernst ponders pulling the plug on the long-comatose patient, Butz—pouring another drink, swaying on his feet—refuses. “He’s got catastrophic insurance! Long-term care insurance!” Butz bellows. “He’s got three insurance companies paying off his bills in cash every month!” Bed 5, in fact, rakes in $120,000 a month for the hospital. But the blustery Butz himself has no health insurance, preferring to die in his own bed with a glass of scotch and a cigar.
The critic Roger Ebert called the movie “smart and hard-edged,” and nudging aside co-stars James Spader and Helen Mirren, he loved Brooks’s performance the most.
Born Albert Einstein to a showbiz family in Los Angeles, Brooks dropped out of Carnegie Mellon to pursue standup (with a new name) and eventually got into acting, writing and directing. Now 75, he has spent most of his artistic life examining boomer dilemmas and life stages. The clash between ethics and income, as seen in Critical Care, is the kind of unsolvable problem that Brooks loves. They pop up in the seven films he has created from scratch, including Lost in America about Reagan-era yuppie dreams of living off the grid, and Defending Your Life, which all happens after death. Critics acknowledge his philosophical passion, but roles like Dr. Butz appeal to everybody. NPR film critic John Powers has called him “one of the most majestic ranters and kvetchers in movie history.” And who can resist a delightfully, painfully pointed poke at the harsh truths inside the health insurance system?