Ways of the Flesh Cure for Hollywood Doldrums
Is humor good for what ails you? It may not cure cancer, but maybe it just works on something deeper, on the soul rather than the body. Writer/director/producer Dennis Cooper, M.D. has written here and there for television (including for Chicago Hope, Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues) but has a more personal story to tell in Ways of the Flesh. If humor were medicine then watching this movie would be as close as possible to bottling and selling it to an ill audience.
Writer, stand-up comedian and chief resident at Memorial Hospital, Dr. Sidney Zachary, a.k.a Dr. Z (Wood Harris) wants to become the next Michael Crichton. To break into the bestseller business, though, he needs a character unlike himself who will sell books. Nobody will buy a story about a doctor with a sense of humor who thinks laughter is a form of medicine.
He finds his man in the form of Dr. Ray Howard (Brian J. White), a ladies’ man fresh out of Harvard Medical School who took his internship at Memorial to follow his ex-girlfriend Valerie (Mya). That doesn’t stop Ray from looking for booty calls with any and all of the attractive hospital staff members. With the help of his girlfriend Donna (Zoe Saldana), and thanks to Dr. Howard, Dr. Z’s novel is suddenly off and running.
Ray isn’t a bad guy but he has a lot to learn beyond his medical school training. Butting heads with two of the nastier doctors at Memorial, Dr. Graves (Scott Paulin) and Dr. Propper (David S. Lee), Dr. Z chastises him for his criticisms. Those two vultures represent their HMOs well, but Ray runs his personal life the same way, giving a little bit of attention to every woman he comes across. They never get any more than that from him and apparently should feel lucky to have bedded someone as special as a muscled Harvard graduate. Is there much of a difference, then, between him and the hated Dr. Graves?
Under Dr. Z’s tutelage, Ray learns about the intangibles of practicing medicine and dealing with life. That, and “food comes first” accompanied by an Atkins-like chart with a giant “Z” advocating ice cream with a bagel for breakfast, ice cream with grilled cheese for lunch and ice cream with ice cream for dessert.
Dr. Z’s lust for life and good humor are highly infectious, both on-screen and off. Harris’ performance is especially quirky and energetic, but White’s gradual development of Ray over the course of the film nicely encapsulates Cooper’s themes both medical and personal.
The filmmaker breaks with several Hollywood norms by not dressing his nearly all-black cast in stereotypes (particularly the women). This is no Barbershop-meets-ER hybrid instead being a refreshingly stylized story with a personality all its own even if that does end up making it less commercial (“Groove At Your Own Risk” one of Dr. Z’s signs states). If formulaic movies and soulless remakes have become a contagion, then Ways of the Flesh is the cure.