The care and shaping of Hugh Grant’s American film career is a fascinating…challenge. Here’s this professionally British chap — naughty and winsomely self-deprecating — who is best known for his fetching apologies for wretched behavior both in character (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility) and out (Sunset Boulevard — not the movie). Grant’s got plenty of what Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, called ”creamy English charm.” But can Grant expand his range to suit the Hollywood he so lustily enjoys?
In fitting him up as a bright doctor who stumbles, at his peril, onto a scheme of ethically horrifying secret research in the medical thriller Extreme Measures, Grant’s cosmetics-model girlfriend and Measures producer (!), Elizabeth Hurley, had a smart idea. ”Right,” you can almost hear her (or someone like her) saying. ”Off you go, then. And quit fluttering!” In a role sized for the actor as carefully as a bespoke suit (written for him by Dolores Claiborne‘s Tony Gilroy and adapted from the novel by Michael Palmer), Grant plays Dr. Guy Luthan, a visiting Brit doing trauma-room work at an overloaded New York City hospital. When a homeless man shows up in the ER, freaking and dying and wearing an unidentifiable ID tag, however, Guy’s dogged interest in the mysterious case leads him to the spinal regeneration work of Dr. Lawrence Myrick (busy Gene Hackman, in a coat and mustache that whisper danger). And pretty soon Guy is tunneling into the community of the city’s wretched ”mole people,” running from bullets, and confronting the amoral Myrick with a bloody nose dripping, fetchingly, onto his British snaggleteeth.
The story itself is standard ethics-as-parlor-game stuff: (Q) Should doctors play God? (A) Probably not a good idea. The scary sequences (chases, dodgy maneuvers in dangerous places, etc.) don’t accrue to much. But Grant was wise to put himself in the hands of Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, 7 Up), a director of good taste whose instincts are to downplay smarm — even the kind that sells this thriller. (One mistake: In an effort to include a popular girl at the party, Sarah Jessica Parker rattles around briefly and uselessly as the only ER nurse in town allowed to practice medicine in cute gym clothes.) Apted keeps the speechifying and dramatic poses away from Grant (poor Hackman’s the one forced to say, ”If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t that be the brave thing to do?”). And he gives the star room to do clean work without the fussiness that marred Nine Months. ”You’re quite a creepy person, aren’t you,” Guy comments to one quite creepy person. It’s a locution only Hugh Grant could pull off, and he does it without batting an eyelash. His Hollywood prognosis: Promising. C+