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Cinemalphabet: G is for Gross Anatomy (1989)

December 7, 2010

If ever there was an 80s film – not starring Tom Berenger – that screams, “Saturday afternoon basic cable fare,” it’s Gross Anatomy. Scanning the names of male and female leads – Matthew Modine and Daphne Zuniga – it’s easy to assume the forgettable 1989 romantic comedy is a sequel to Vision Quest, which it is not. Besides, being formulaic and somewhat cheesy (time has not been kind to this film), Gross Anatomy marks the cinematic transition of Matthew Modine from rising 80s star with promise to, “That guy who isn’t D.B. Sweeney.” Coming only two years after his well received performance in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, that’s quite the transition. It’s a shame though; Modine is a gorgeous and a talented actor. These seem like qualities you’d want in an actor, but with Jeff Daniels and the aforementioned Sweeney, I guess the field for reasonably attractive, blondish actors who aren’t really leads is pretty crowded.

Joe Slovak is a bright, smirking, working class. academically underachieving, cinema trope with potential. In fact, what makes the film surprisingly enjoyable is its inability to pretend it aspires to anything more ambitious than what it is: a modest romantic comedy. Gross Anatomy traffics in plenty of familiar tropes and archetypes – tough professor who’s secretly has your back, rich girl with something to prove, snotty class mate, earnest hard working Asian student, nerd in an emotional pressure cooker, etc – yet nothing about the way events unfold or characters develop feels forced or unnatural.

Even though Laurie Rorbach (Zuniga) loathes Slovak immediately upon meeting him, it’s clear the two will end up romantically entangled. Even though Slovak never studies and seems nonplussed by all that is asked of him his first year of medical school, it’s clear he’ll be successful. Though many of the film’s story and character arcs leave little room for surprise, oddly enough it has the interesting effect of making the few plot twists actually surprising. I’m not saying you won’t be able to guess them; I’m just saying they won’t be what you expect.

The acting is serviceable, though veers towards hammy at times. That’s okay. There’s not a lot of meat on the bone. Xena bless these actors for trying to make as tasty a dish as possible with the limited ingredients they have on hand. That said, some of the film’s more poignant moments feel a tad manipulative; fortunately, there aren’t a lot of them. Nevertheless, against all that is reasonable, I absolutely ADORE this movie. I could watch it over and over (and have).The film even gets named checked – well more like plot checked – in Pony Up’s song “Matthew Modine”! The film resolves itself pleasantly enough and doesn’t wear out its welcome, like a gracious plus one nudging the invited guest, signaling it’s time to mosey before the hosts toss you out on your ass. Though Gross Anatomy did leave me with one question: did we really wear our pants and hair that high in 1989?

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