Monday, 8 October 2012

Doc Hollywood (1991)

Dir. Michael Caton-Jones
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Julie Warner, Woody Harrelson, Bridget Fonda

It’s another movie in which an Uppity Big-City Type™ suddenly finds themselves in a Small Redneck Town™ and learns Important Lessons About Life and Love™ from the Eccentric But Warm-Hearted Locals™. When reviewing Sweet Home Alabama back at the start of the year I made the comment that the entire film seemed to be based around the fact that there was a famous song of that name, and if Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded Sweet Home Carolina instead the movie would have been set elsewhere. Well, this is the Carolina version. 

Ben Stone (Michael J. Fox) is a big city doctor, leaving the emergency rooms of Washington, D.C. for his dream job as a fantastically well-paid (half a million dollars a year - and this is back in 1991!) plastic surgeon in Los Angeles. He has an interview, so, of course, he quits his current position so he can drive all the way across the country in his vintage Porsche Speedster on a very circuitous route which somehow takes him through South Carolina. An auto accident leaves him stranded in Grady, ‘The Squash Capital of the South’, where as punishment he is drafted in to help at the local community hospital. The townsfolk welcome him into their community – all except ambulance driver Lou (Julie Warner). Lou is not impressed with his big city attitude. Yet her reserve is more appealing to him than all the other measures tried by the townsfolk (led by David Ogden Spiers’ big and boosterish mayor) to get him to stay. 

So the basic plotline is the same as that of the later Sweet Home Alabama (or, to be honest, Cars). There are differences however. Reese Withersoon’s Mel was originally from Pigeon Forge, Alabama, and had been trying to hide her small-town roots ever since. This is Ben’s first experience of Grady, yet he is not the complete big city package everyone imagines him to be. He grew up in a small Indiana town himself and hated it. Lou is the first person to discover this. It is the folk of Grady who have pre-conceived ideas about him and not the other way round. Doc Hollywood is a film not so much about prejudice than it is about being willing to open oneself up to new experiences. He tells local insurance salesman Hank (Woody Harrelson) a convoluted parable that is meant to be about women but, somehow, manages to end up being about hats. But really it is about life more generally. Ben says you cannot settle for the first hat you see: “There’s a lot of hats out there Hankster, and even if this one fits – and I’m not saying that it does – hypothetically how do you know it’s the right one when you haven’t even tried any others on?” This is the impetus for Hank to realise his dream of moving to L.A. Conversely, Ben finds that, once he reaches California, he misses Grady more and more. 

In Sweet Home Alabama the locals just about managed to escape stereotypes. In Doc Hollywood less so. Frankly, South Carolina should consider sueing. The rural locals are dirty, drably dressed and ill-educated (one couple cannot read). People hunt and go dynamite-fishing. The curmudgeonly local doc verges on quackery. The economy seems to run on barter. The biggest and most exciting event in town is a grand festival to celebrate squashes.
Patient Zero in the Swine Flu epidemic was quickly identified
As the lazy stereotyping shows Doc Hollywood is just a tired movie. I felt I’d seen it all before. It is not particularly novel, it is not particularly funny, it is not particularly romantic. Ben never came off as quite as much of a douche as his former colleagues seemed to think. It is one cliché after another. To be honest Sweet Home Alabama had more wit and colour and heart about it – and that wasn’t even a very good movie itself! 

What have I learnt about South Carolina?
The South Carolina depicted in Doc Hollywood is one of big dirty illiterate families out in the woods and where payment may come in the form of a pig. Grady is decribed as “the buckle of the Bible Belt” and yet single mothers go skinny-dipping in the rivers and greet newcomers in the nude. Medical provision seems rudimentary. The community hospital is just a converted house. The staff is comprised of an absent old-timer of a “sawbones”, a surly nurse and an ambulance driver. 

Yet if we want to look for a more over-arching theme it could be the negative presence of the Interstate. Ben only winds up in Grady after he misses a turning. I suppose Grady is one of those towns that people used to pass through until the Interstate system was constructed in the ‘50s. Now there is a fast motorway taking people right past at 70mph, so one would never know that places like Grady ever existed. Its development has been retarded ever since. 

Can we go there?
Grady doesn’t exist. I’m assuming that it is meant to be somewhere in the west of the state considering that the nearest big hospital is stated to be in Athens (Georgia).  

The film was, however, shot elsewhere. Filming took place in northern Florida, in Micanopy (just south of Gainsville) to be precise. The main street of Grady (down which the Squash Festival processes) is actually the main street of Micanopy, Cholokka Boulevard. I love the fact that in 2009 the town hosted a Doc Hollywood Festival to honour the work of medical professionals in rural, underserved areas. It even culminated in a recreation of the Squash parade! I believe that the House of Hirsch antiques shop was the building used for the Grady hospital.
Overall Rating: 2/5

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