A Double Life, by David Bax
“Based on a True Story” can be a daunting phrase when one is tasked with reviewing a film. Though its inclusion is often simply a tactic employed as a shortcut to the audience’s empathy, in some cases it’s there because the movie has a literal message or it’s drawing attention to a cause. Art as activism is a common notion and it seems intuitive that the better the art is, the more effective its meaning will be. But can a movie with a good enough point remain powerful even if it’s not very good?
I found myself pondering this very question while watching Adam & Mark Kassen’s Puncture. The story is about two young Houston lawyers (Chris Evans and co-director Mark Kassen) who run the type of firm you see on cheap, local television commercials scraping for personal injury lawsuits. They stumble into representing an inventor named Jeffrey Dancort, played by the solid-as-always Marshall Bell, who has created a safety syringe that cannot be reused and will prevent accidental needle-sticks that lead to the HIV/AIDS or hepatitis B and C infection of over 1,000 nurses a year in the United States alone. When the worldwide numbers are considered, especially with the inclusion of Africa, where AIDS is rampant and underfunding leads to constant needle re-use, Dancort’s invention could potentially save millions of lives. The problem is that hospitals are refusing to buy it. As our diligent heroes discover, group purchasing organizations (GPO’s) control the buying of supplies for hospitals en masse and they tend to favor the big manufacturers, who bristle at the safety needle’s slightly higher production cost.
Knowing, as we do, that this is a true story (though the extent to which the facts have been molded into a standard movie structure is unclear), that’s all pretty infuriating stuff. The Kassens do a good job, as well, of making understandable the various legal and bureaucratic specifics of the case. Yet when it comes to the big thing, the thing that should have made their film unique and noteworthy, they fall well short. Mike Weiss, the lawyer played by Evans, is the more dedicated and righteous of the two in terms of this suit but he’s also a pretty serious drug addict himself. I’m probably not the first person to liken the movie to a mix between A Civil Action and Half Nelson. The fatal difference between Puncture, though, and the latter film is that Half Nelson made its protagonist’s addiction realistic and ultimately very pathetic and sad. This new film – and Evans’ performance in it – can’t manage to separate the nobility of the pursuit of justice from the drug aspect. As a result, there’s an inherent glorification of the multiple and constant ways in which Weiss is destroying himself.
As mentioned above, Bell is quite good in his role but he has far too little screen time with the equally reliable Brett Cullen, who plays the lawyer representing the GPO’s. These two stalwart character actors could carry a film by themselves. The film is also expertly edited. It snaps together and moves at an exhilarating pace, always knowing exactly when to move the story forward.
The lawsuit side of the plot, though, is as off-the-mark as the drug elements. Given the facts of the story, it’s clear that the film and its main characters have right on their side. Still, the movie leans on straw men and oversimplifications. The entire cast of characters is, to a person, either good or bad. When they’re bad, it is invariably because they are corrupted by money. For a film about a man leading a double life, Puncture is disappointingly lacking in shades of gray. Again, it’s no easy task to write negatively about an actual case with merit and the real, troubled guy who dedicated himself to it. Luckily, his true life accomplishments still exist and speak for themselves.