Matthew Modine plays Joe Slovak, son of a West Coast fisherman, who goes to medical school and has a hard time adjusting. The film focuses on Joe and the members of his dissection group in Gross Anatomy. Joe, perhaps because of the proud independence of fishermen, goes through most of the film with a big chip on his shoulder, refusing to take things seriously, showing up late for dissection carrying a basketball, refusing to consider the feelings of hypothetical patients, etc., while everyone else is trying their hardest to become good doctors. He falls in love with dissection partner Laurie Rohrbach (Daphne Zuniga), but he has a hard time there, too.

When Joe's roommate David is kicked out, Joe goes home to think things over. He visits Dr. Rachel Woodruff (Christine Lahti), head of Anatomy who all along has been critical of his attitude but is now at home, incapacitated with lupus. She tells him of her disappointment in her own career ("I made doctors--people need healers.") and in him, because he has never wanted to be as good as she knew he could be. She pleads with him to commit to being a good doctor.

Switch to the group's all-nighter before finals and the sudden labor pains of the very pregnant member. They all rush off to the hospital, but don't make it, and Joe winds up delivering the baby on a table in a roadside diner (soft trumpet fanfare from the soundtrack). Between Dr. Woodruff, who dies at the end, and the delivery, Joe gets the message about commitment, and he winds up with both good grades and the girl.


This is not a deep or complicated film, but it is a popular one with premed students, perhaps because of its partially realistic treatment of medical school--the nervousness, the competition, the exhaustion, and, finally, the acculturation, the learning to be doctors. Joe's reluctance to engage is puzzling, because it isn't shown to come from anywhere that's interesting--it's just there.

But the film does deliver some big messages at the level of courage and commitment and caring. There's no way to be a doctor half-way--and Joe's career shows him learning that in the first year of medical school. The dying Dr. Woodruff's lament, while it is not well integrated with the rest of the film, does link to Joe's career through its emphasis on heart (the locus of spirit, not the organ).

Primary Source

Touchstone Home Video