There’s something about organ-transplant movies that encourages sentimentality and wishy-washy melodrama; looking back to movies such as Return to Me or Seven Pounds or My Sister’s Keeper. But this one promises a more hard-edged look at the ethics, the compromises and the difficult choices. “The heart is just a muscle,” grunts top surgeon Andre Boxer, played by Kelsey Grammer. Boxer is a gruff, cheerless workaholic who smokes like a chimney and often looks terrible. It’s a bravely unflattering and un-Frasier-like role, though somewhat improbably, Boxer is sleeping with a colleague played by Julia Stiles, a good 25 years his junior.
The crux of the story is an urgent debate over who should receive a heart that has unexpectedly become available. Alongside Grammer and Stiles on the transplant committee are a host of decent actors representing conflicting viewpoints, including Janeane Garofalo and Colman Domingo. It’s a tough choice. One patient is obese and bipolar, but has three daughters; another is in her 70s. And clouding the issue is option three: a spoilt rich kid with a history of violence and drug abuse, but a powerful father (Dan Hedaya) who will make a sizeable donation to the hospital if his son gets the heart. Coincidentally, Hedaya is also a potential backer for Boxer’s private medical research.
With the clock ticking and complex matters of life and death to thrash out, it could have been a gripping procedural – somewhere between 12 Angry Men, a feature-length ER episode and a school balloon debate – but sadly it lacks the conviction to stay its unsentimental course. The dialogue is earnestly on-the-nose, and there is little in the way of visual excitement in what’s essentially a static board meeting (the story was adapted from a stage play). More worryingly, Grammer and Stiles’ fraught relationship becomes a substantial subplot, complicated by her pregnancy and Grammer’s health issues (turns out he’s got a dodgy heart too – the irony!). It feels as if the story has been given a last-minute melodrama transplant.