Dr. Werner Ernst (James Spader) is a third year resident, finally enjoying the perks of doctor-hood...namely, sex. When fashion model Felicia Potter (Kyra Sedgwick), the daughter of a comatose patient, leads Dr. Ernst on, he follows willingly.
However, he's being led into a trap. Felicia and her sister Connie (Margo Martindale) are in a fierce struggle over their father. Felicia believes he is a vegetable, with no hope of recovery, and wants to pull the plug to end his suffering. The born-again Connie, however, believes that not only is he conscious, but that he is about to wake up any minute now...and that any attempt to pull the plug would be murder.
Meanwhile, in another bed in the critical care ward, a kidneyless patient (Jeffrey Wright) struggles to cling to life. Though he's being tended to by the caring nurse Stella (Helen Mirren), he has daily conversations with the devil's helper (Wallace Shawn), who has convinced him he is going straight to Hell.
These little trips into the fantastical (also including a visit from a Heavenly nun played by Anne Bancroft) don't flow well with the rest of the film. Perhaps they were intended as bits of comic relief from the rest of the film (comic relief from comedy?), but whatever the case, they're more distracting than entertaining.
In the primary plot line, however, the film is highly entertaining and thought provoking. As the lead, James Spader is out of his "scoundrel mode", and back to his "bewildered good guy mode", and in superior form. When he gets caught between a rock and a hard place, you truly sympathize with him.
The supporting cast is also very good. However, the two standouts are Helen Mirren as the tireless nurse assigned to the critical care ward, and Albert Brooks as Dr. Ernst's alcoholic supervisor Dr. Butz. The funniest scenes in the film belong to him.
Director Sidney Lumet has crafted a witty satire that, when rolling, mostly works. Granted, it's conclusion lends itself to passionate speechifiying, but by that time you've been drawn so fully into the story that you don't mind.
[R - language and a scene of sexuality] (Live)