April 27, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

Would it be too much of a backhanded compliment to call the med-school soap opera Vital Signs the most enjoyable youth-schlock ensemble movie since St. Elmo’s Fire? The film really is bad, what with its crew of ridiculously well- coiffed third-year students (they look like the first budding physicians in history who’ve never lost a night of sleep) living through their stock romantic dilemmas and chasing internships as though they were going for merit badges. This must also be the only movie that devotes a Rocky-esque montage to the spectacle of someone attempting to save a cancer patient. You want to yell, ”Go for it, dude!”

Still, director Marisa Silver has staged these third-rate shenanigans with considerable zip. Vital Signs has one big advantage over Gross Anatomy, last year’s Paper Chase-goes-to-med-school schlocker: It has a juicy authority figure — Jimmy Smits as a sternly charismatic hipster surgeon who dispenses suave lessons in medical ethics. Smits, I suspect, lacks the depth of personality to make it as a movie star. Still, he’s a terrific, deadpan ham. Vital Signs is like some junior-high-school fantasy of what it would be like to go to medical school. The movie never strays far from camp, but on its own shameless terms, it delivers.

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