What’s Up Doc?

The Heart Specialist is in need of some serious CPR

Midway through The Heart Specialist, the strikingly amateurish first comedy from writer/director Dennis Cooper (Academy Boyz), you may find yourself wondering, What is Zoe Saldana doing in this movie? Next she’ll be dancing at bar mitzvahs dressed as a Na’vi.

But don’t fret—Saldana has not fallen on hard times. This movie was actually filmed in 2006, when she was still best known for playing a fiery Latin ballerina in Center Stage. No doubt her star turn in Avatar helped to get this clunker released.

The Heart Specialist is set up from the beginning as a film version of a fictional book written by the main character, Dr. Sidney Zachary (Wood Harris, who played Avon Barksdale in The Wire). “Dr. Z,” as he’s known to colleagues, is a heart and lung specialist at a mediocre teaching hospital in L.A., but has dreams of being the next Michael Crichton. He immediately warms to one of his new interns, the young, swaggering Harvard Medical School graduate Dr. Ray Howard (Brian J. White), and with the help of his trusty girlfriend/nurse, Donna (Saldana, in what amounts to a supporting role as dry as Melba toast), begins to pen his first novel.

Cooper spent years writing for Chicago Hope and Miami Vice, so it’s not that surprising that the movie often plays like a sitcom. It’s one of those films when you can picture the dialogue written out on paper, and understand that it probably sounded funnier at the time (let’s hope it did).Scenes go on too long, spiraling toward the inevitable prosaic punch line, and everyone but the central characters are one-dimensional caricatures (the cruel, exacting chief resident; his smarmy German toady; the horny cougar patient).

As Drs. Z and Ray, Harris and White have surprising depth, chemistry and charisma, but the script fails them. I found myself thinking more than once that if Dwayne Wayne and Ron Johnson from A Different World got their own spin-off medical show, it might sound a lot like The Heart Specialist. (But actually, that’s overselling the movie; my imaginary show would be far superior).

Writing aside, this even looks like made-for-TV fare: The sets are cheap and generic, the colors are washed out and the camera focus is iffy—sometimes on purpose, as in a slow-motion running-with-a-gurney shot (yes, really). When a main character dies, we are treated to a montage of flashbacks set to tear-jerking music.

Cooper is also overly fond of lengthy scenes set in a comedy club in which Dr. Z performs cringe-worthy stand-up as a means of somehow studying laughter’s effect on patients’ outcomes. It’s obvious that The Heart Specialist is his labor of love, but for the viewer, it’s just labor.

That said, thanks to Cooper’s obvious affection for his characters (and their affection for each other), the movie has heart. It may not be good, but, by God, it’s earnest. There are moments in which it’s clear that a touching, funny film might be buried underneath the uneven pacing, hokey jokes and cliché climaxes. For now, though, the prognosis is not good.

The Heart Specialist (R) ★★☆☆☆