The conceit that we must put our lives in the care of medical professionals who seemingly know what they’re doing, or seemingly perform with a moral code, is as universally unsettling as any. Unfortunately, screenwriter John Enbom and director Lance Daly miss the boat with “The Good Doctor,” a would-be character study where the character is not that interesting. Then again, Orlando Bloom, who’s made such a vacant leading man in historical epics and action-fantasy tentpoles, turns in a soft-spoken, coolly understated performance, and it’s the most compelling work of his career.
Dr. Martin Blake (Bloom) just wants to be a good doctor (a term that’s uttered ad nauseam). Young, boyishly handsome, and introverted, he is in his first year of residency at a Southern California hospital and has applied for the Infectious Diseases fellowship. All he wants is respect, especially from his supervisor, Dr. Waylans (Rob Morrow), but the nurses and orderlies take him off his high horse (he doesn’t think doctors should have to draw blood nor does he bother to check a Spanish-speaking patient’s allergies when prescribing medicine). Then when he gets a new patient, Diane Nixon (Riley Keough), an attractive 18-year-old with a kidney disorder whom takes quite a shine to her doctor, he realizes she is the reason he’s so dedicated to helping people. When Martin relieves her pain with medication and she leaves the hospital, Diane’s father invites him to dinner to show his family’s gratitude. But Diane is out with her unsavory boyfriend and doesn’t show up for dinner, so Martin goes to the bathroom and changes her medications. Soon, like he had hoped, Diane is back in the hospital and he makes it his mission to keep her there and under his care, even if that means covering up his unethical tracks.
When a film centers on a character that’s so internally conflicted with good-and-bad values, like Martin Blake, it is a make-or-break requirement that the actor in the role is up to the challenge. Though no fault of Bloom, who makes the material more palatable, the character remains a cipher, more pathetic than sinister. Perhaps that’s the point, but this “good doctor” doesn’t make for a particularly compelling figure to watch. His descent into his unethical ways comes so quickly that his actions seem inexplicable. How did he get so selfish and arrogant? If he has developed a bond with Diane, why does he want to slowly kill her? Despite getting the best out of Bloom whose efforts turn out to be in vain, the filmmakers just can’t find a way to get inside Martin’s head. This is one of the rare cases where a voice-over might have been necessary.
The rest of the cast are given pretty perfunctory duties in supporting roles. Taraji P. Henson is underused, playing a feisty nurse with a chip on her shoulder, especially when she scolds Martin for his illegible handwriting. Michael Pena, as a horndog orderly who beds patients in the storage room and later tries blackmailing Blake, is just a type. Morrow, however, manages to find some quirks with his voice and glasses as his wise mentor.
To the film’s credit, “The Good Doctor” never really spirals out of control into dementedly creepy “American Psycho” territory. Director Daly, rather, handles the story with a deliberate pace, and a low-key, emotionally detached tone and mood. Even Yaron Orbach’s strikingly washed-out cinematography conveys Blake’s solitariness quite well. There is a promising theme at work, too, as it’s plainly worded in the dialogue (“You know how sometimes you do things you know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it”), but it helps to have a grasp on what drives your main character. From there, the film just becomes harder and harder to swallow (Is accepting dinner from a new patient’s family appropriate? Are there no security cameras in this hospital?). By the time Martin is interrogated at his sleekly sterile beachside apartment by a detective (J.K. Simmons), some tension is unspooled, until he ludicrously rushes to the bathroom and attempts to flush pages of Diane’s diary down the toilet.
When everything is considered, the story never quite builds to anything or fleshes out its characters enough, let alone its title character. Instead, it abruptly cuts to black, the credits roll, and the film flat lines. Though he’s showcasing it in a very flawed picture, Bloom is obviously ready to set down his sword and tackle darker, more complex roles.
90 min., rated PG-13.