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As drama, 'Proof' is anemic

October 18, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic
  • Paula Cale Lisbe and Harry Connick Jr. star in "Living Proof," the story of the UCLA doctor who helped develop the revolutionary breast cancer drug, Herceptin.
Paula Cale Lisbe and Harry Connick Jr. star in "Living Proof,"… (Lifetime )

"Living Proof" is a new Lifetime TV docudrama about Dr. Dennis Slamon and the development of the drug Herceptin, which has had great success in extending the lives of women with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. (The film, premiering tonight, arrives during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Lifetime's own Stop Breast Cancer for Life campaign) It can't help being moving at times, because the subject itself is moving, and anyone who has lost someone to disease or battled with the medical establishment will bring those feelings to the film. And there's certainly nothing wrong with celebrating the UCLA physician, who did a great thing (and possibly other great things not recounted here).

But worthiness does not a movie make. "Living Proof" is good only in a moral sense. As a film, it's no more than a piecemeal re-creation -- a collection of scenes, some no longer than a television commercial, that jumble the doctor's story with those of his patients to no real cumulative effect. And although some of these scenes provide individual dramatic moments for a fine cast (and for Lifetime, a big-name one) that includes Harry Connick Jr., Bernadette Peters, Regina King, Angie Harmon, Swoosie Kurtz and Amy Madigan, they don't actually constitute a drama.

As Slamon, Connick -- neither chosen for his resemblance to the man he is playing nor made to resemble him -- gets the most to do, though, as with his costars, what he gets is not quite enough to constitute a character. For most of the movie, Slamon is either battling with drug companies or the Food and Drug Administration, delivering bad or good news to his patients or half-apologizing to his neglected but supportive wife (Paula Cale Lisbe). (He commits the classic busy-dad sin: He misses a recital.) "You're going to go to sleep," his wife tells him at one low point, "and you're going to wake up and you're going to fight your fight until you win. That's who you are." And that's that.

He also runs, actually and metaphorically. He runs at the beginning of the film. At the close, he runs before a stadium full of women -- the ones we've met in the movie (including those who've died in its course) and all the anonymous symbolic others who have profited or may profit from his research -- a reference, perhaps, to his statement that Herceptin could save "40,000 lives a year: that's enough to fill the Rose Bowl every other year."

It is not that science can't be thrilling. Indeed, Connick is best when Slamon is talking about his work, as in the opening scene, explaining to new assistant Amanda Bynes just what he's trying to do. He catches the excitement of a person whose special technical knowledge has found a fresh audience, and he sells his expository dialogue ("I want to be clear: 200,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer") with a geeky enthusiasm.

But not every true story is adaptable for the screen; most aren't. (This one has been adapted by Vivienne Radkoff from Robert Bazell's "Her-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer" and directed by Dan Ireland, who directed 1996's "The Whole Wide World.") Golden-era Hollywood used to turn out true-life medical dramas with some regularity -- "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet," with Edward G. Robinson attacking syphilis; "The Story of Louis Pasteur," with Paul Muni curing rabies; "Yellow Jack," with Lewis Stone conquering malaria -- but they padded the facts with glamorous invention.

And while "Living Proof" may be more true to life, it also indulges in the standard tropes of the genre: The caring man of vision fights the forces that keep him from saving lives, which makes everyone who stands in his way, or even doesn't help him along, bad by definition. (There are no gray areas in foxholes, one might say.) "We're done here!" cries the film's corporate bad guy, dismissing Slamon from his presence.

As a device for consciousness-raising and fundraising, "Living Proof" might still be effective in spite of its faults, might usefully inspire viewers in a way that a documentary might not. There are people who need a face put on these things, even -- or especially -- if it's the face of an actor.



'Living Proof'

Where: Lifetime

When: 9 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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