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From the Vault: Gross Anatomy (1989)

December 4, 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 guy. 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?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 8:42 pm

    I think the transition was even more precipitous, as this film came out just a year after what I remember being a wonderfully funny “Married to the Mob.”

  2. December 4, 2010 9:15 pm

    It’s really hard to look at his IMDB page without cringing a little. Somewhere after “Bye Bye Love” it becomes truly dire and littered with TV movies and other low level parts. How does that happen to such a promising actor. Was his “it” factor too 80s? I hope I don’t sound like a concern troll. But sheesh. From FMJ to playing a drunken sex crazed washed up actor in The Blackout. (do not watch; is awful)

  3. December 4, 2010 9:19 pm

    Apparently he has yet to find his Tarantino.

  4. hsofia permalink
    December 4, 2010 11:30 pm

    What on earth happened to Daphne Zuniga? I really liked her back in the day. And Meredith Salinger. My two favorite brunettes who seem to have vanished. Neither of them were even in that Gylne Tider video.

  5. December 5, 2010 2:50 am

    I might have seen this movie if they called it “St. Elsewhere, the Motion Picture.” But I had given up on medical storylines at that moment. Maybe now I’m ready to give it a look.

    Zuniga really did disappear, as did Salinger, but you’ll find the latter on twitter, where she actually will occasionally respond to “regular” people. (apparently she couldn’t get her whole name!)

    And the former is in a really bad indie movie (ok maybe it’s not REALLY bad, but the trailer suggests it is).

    And poor Matthew. I have no explanation for his plummet. He never did drugs or go on any benders. He didn’t seem to have issues with any of the directors he worked with… if there’s anything I can think, it’s that maybe he just came across as the Eagle Scout just too much for people, and during that era of filmmaking, that wasn’t really a need for that, at least not that often… and Brendan Fraser, ten years younger, likely scooped up roles that he could have done?

  6. hsofia permalink
    December 5, 2010 3:33 am

    @Penpusher – You might be on to something with the Eagle Scout thing. Also, I have no basis for this, but I wonder if he just never really had the ambition to push his career to the next level. He does a lot of theater and directs little projects; maybe he prefers to do those kinds of things and be with his family rather than endure the pressures of becoming (and remaining) an A-list movie star. Maybe it’s enough for him to make a good living that allows him to do work that he enjoys and feels proud of. Regardless, sounds like a nice life to me.

  7. December 5, 2010 10:07 am

    Maybe it’s enough for him to make a good living that allows him to do work that he enjoys and feels proud of. Regardless, sounds like a nice life to me.

    You should see his IMDB credits. Sadly, your romanticized version of Modine is not based on reality. I read through them and wonder what the heck he was thinking. So much talent. There are lots of actors who don’t want the pressure who still manage to be in fantastic projects – Sam Elliott comes to mind (married to same woman for 26 years!) – but unfortunately, Modine’s IMDB tells a story of an actor who keeps taking roles in hopes of getting back to his former glory. And as for the Eagle Scout thing; very astute analysis, Dean. If you look at some of his mid 90s role, it’s clear Modine was trying to be really “edgy” and play against type.

    sadly, something about his look and acting range screams, “80s!

  8. December 5, 2010 6:37 pm

    This movie always reminds me of Turtle’s, the music and movie rental place nearest my house growing up in Atlanta. I’m not sure why, I think because for the entire year it was in the “new releases” section, I would pick it up and consider it, then put it down and get something else. I finally saw it later and was pleasantly surprised by it.

    there’s still time for a Modine second act! get him an AMC show.

  9. December 5, 2010 6:58 pm

    Whenever I say what you’re saying, Raybear, I recall this clip and I feel sheepish.

  10. December 5, 2010 7:58 pm

    He needs to do a movie with Ed Begley Jr. as brothers.

  11. evmaroon permalink
    December 5, 2010 8:50 pm

    Is this the movie where the professor has lupus or something, or am I just making that up?

  12. December 6, 2010 11:28 am

    @Ev – one in the same!

  13. metermouse permalink
    December 8, 2010 2:50 pm

    I just saw the pic and thought this was a post about “Flatliners”! Must read title first!

  14. Brandy permalink
    February 2, 2012 10:08 am

    What is the song at the bar when they slow dance?? A woman is

  15. François permalink
    February 28, 2014 2:56 am

    I saw this movie when it came out. I kinda liked it, although there were a few things in it that had gotten on my nerves, a little… I remember I made a joke to one of my friends, saying it was a good thing all the actors had been wearing those immaculate white labcoats over their clothes, for most of the film, because it was like all characters were lousy dressers (most of us dressed better than that, back then)…

    But Modine’s character is what made “Gross Anatomy” not entirely “do” it for me: you know, the obnoxious guy who supposedly gets into med school with mediocre college grades (??) because he “scored exceptionally high on entrance exams” (according to Dr Ann Woodruff, a teacher who gives him a hard time). He never studies but somehow aces all exams. He hasn’t any real interest in medicine, not much respect for the medical profession, and doesn’t really know why he even applied to med school… His ambitious, hard-working, no-nonsense but attractive anatomy lab partner falls in love with him because he is a badboy, of course, something which this daughter of two rich physicians seems to like a lot (I have to say, THAT is a cliché that screams EIGHTIES, yes).

    Now, Snarky’s Machine wrote: “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…”. Well, I personally think that it did try to show the kind of challenge med school is for the students who, you know, get into it, dreaming of becoming doctors, and realize that it will require even more work than they had thought. And there is actually a strong scene, near the end of the movie, when Dr Woodruff (very well played by Christine Lahti) tells Joe Slovak that she is a teacher who “makes doctors”, but near the end of her life, she now worries that she has created a lot of physicians with “medicine on their minds, and WHAT, on their hearts? Real estate?”. So I’m not saying that this is a very, very deep movie, but I think it did honestly try to raise a few moral questions, and show the reality of medical school (and medical practice) in a much more realistic and intelligent way than a show like Grey’s Anatomy ever did.


  1. Gross anatomy | FinAppx

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