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STUDIO: Sony Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes
• Behind the Scenes of Gifted Hands
• Triumph & Inspiration: The Journey of Ben Carson
Ray: Med School Edition
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Kimberly Elise, Gus Hoffman and Aujanue Ellis
Written by: John Pielmeir; based on the book Gifted Hands by Benjamin Carson and Cecil Murphey
Directed by: Thomas Carson
Dr. Ben Carson goes cutting up people’s brains while being driven mad by an overbearing mother who only wants what best…for dinner! Oh, wait, wait…no, this is about the Ben Carson, one of the world’s premier pediatric neurosurgeons and everything he had to deal with, like racism, class-ism and being played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Great people so often get saddled with less than great movies. There is no doubt that Ben Carson, neurosurgeon, success story, is a great man. He performed the first successful separation of conjoined twins. And yet there’s very little else in Gifted Hands that feels like a unique individual. It’s as if the screenwriters read the book, by Carson and just took the best bits, threw it into some movie script automator and out popped this film, which for all of its earnestness and good acting, is so frustratingly pedestrian that you can’t help but jump up and shout ‘Dammit, I’ve seen this movie before!’
Most of the problems can be leveled at the film’s script, by John Pielmeir, who falls back on cliche time and time again and offers up some worldly pieces of advice such as ‘you got a book inside you’. A terrible line and an even more ridiculous concept, as becoming a doctor requires the reading of many books. One does not simply learn through osmosis all we need to know in life. And for all of Ben’s difficult upbringing, there’s rarely any struggle involved to overcome his place in life. A young Ben, played by Gus Hoffman, is an angry child and there’s one scene where shit finally comes down and his rage overwhelms him. He runs home and prays that the anger be taken from him and…that’s it. Quite literally, a deus ex machina. The film is constantly picking up and dropping subplots, friendship, poverty, racism and tucking them in the corner for emergency use when things are getting a bit slow.
Now, I understand that this is a biopic and that maybe things did happen this way. Maybe I am bringing my own expectations of this film into this review. But damn, there is some tired and trite shit in this film. Dream sequences of his mother abound, inspiring Ben to go this way or that, hitching himself eternally to her in what some might call Oedipal. Sonya Carson, Ben’s mother, practices tough love and she is the second lead of the film, and the only one present throughout all the timelines. Gifted Hands shows us her struggles, the far more intriguing problem of the Carson family, but like everything, the film-makers don’t want to go there for the resolution. She’s sick, she’s better. And nothing has changed.
Kimberly Elise as Sonya is the best thing in the movie. She can play a twenty year old mother and fifty year old grandmother, simply by dyeing her hair. When she’s not on-screen, we’re wondering where she is. Everyone puts in a performance that may not be great, but is certainly never bad. The child actors border on irritable at times, they’re far too eager to impress the camera, but director Thomas Carter (who directed his life story in Coach Carter!) knows how to wrangle performances out of anyone and keeps things flowing smoothly.
Cuba Gooding Jr. gets a lot of (oft deserved) crap. He’s become a punchline, he won the Oscar right out of the gate and has never once come close to replicating Jerry Maguire. It’s been bad comedy after bad comedy for so many years that it’s genuinely surprising to see him act, and act well. I almost forgot he had it in him. He injects Ben with a warm nobility, a charisma and kindness that we wished all doctors would have in them. He’s not perfect, he doubts himself at times when things seem to be too much, but he pulls through and Gooding Jr. hits all the right notes and brings in one of his best performances in years (insert random joke about how bad his roles have been recently).
The surgeries are this film’s musical numbers, or explosions. Most of the time, surgeries can be dull to watch; everybody’s face is covered, there’s little room for emoting and surgery rooms possess a dry, sterile feeling (for obvious reasons). In Gifted Hands, I woke up during the operations. Carter, along with his DP John Aronson and editor Peter Berger create tense and dramatic scenes using only a person’s eyes. At one point, they employ a countdown, yes a god damn countdown, and though I snickered at it when it first showed up; I would be lying if I said it did not suck me in. A cheap tactic, a false way of adding tension to a scene that doesn’t really need, yet effective nonetheless.
Surgeons need steady hands. That is all but said in the title of the movie. I suppose I expected more hand imagery in the film, or at least something alluding to hands, but that avenue of metaphor was lost on the film.
The framing device of the narrative takes on a greatest hits tour of Ben’s life, from boy up to his surgery of the conjoined twins, which acts as the film’s main narrative. The childhood portion goes on for far too long, often repeating itself and handing us redundant information. Another pass at the screenplay could have given us a more concise, less meandering ‘flashback’ act, but once we reach college the film cruises along at a good pace, having found its footing.
Gifted Hands is definitely manipulative. It knows what to play and, more or less, how to play it. The music swells at the appropriate times, characters give wonderful speeches and someone is always there to pick you up when you need picking up. Through the grace of some quality production and a cast that puts in their all, Gifted Hands rises above its Hallmark-esque trappings and becomes something that might not be great, maybe not even good in the traditional sense, but rewarding and yes, inspirational.
Two documentaries grace the set with their presence. Your standard behind the scenes featurette, with interviews from cast, crew and even Ben himself. And another mini-doc devoted to Ben Carson himself which is touching and sweet for you true-story-black-brain-surgeon sub-subgenre of medical films, of which there are many. All of which star Cuba Gooding, Jr, come to think of it…but seriously, if you haven’t already been smitten by Carson’s humility and kindness from the film, prepare for the real deal. He’s just as awesome and noble as the film portrays him to be.