The cultural phenomenon of the soap opera is fascinating, however trivial the form itself. And writer-director Ruedi Gerber correctly identifies the milieu as ripe for multi-layered commentary. Too bad his sluggish, tonally uneven Heartbreak Hospital (Seventh Art, opens September 6 at the Screening Room) isn’t the update of soap-satire he aims for. In fact, it doesn’t even rise to the level of 1991’s Soapdish, with the feverishly mugging Elisabeth Shue sending up TV’s cesspool of sentimentality. Gerber, itching to add something to the tradition, tosses in some Nurse Betty-style reality-fantasy shenanigans, and then dollops a murder mystery on top. The plot concerns Neely, a struggling New York actress, who lands the part of “coma patient” on the nation’s most popular soap, Heartbreak Hospital. When scriptwriters grace her character with miraculous resuscitation, her role subsequently grows. So, too, does the jealousy of her boyfriend, delusional neighbor, and neurotic co-workers. Hilarity ensues, but also something darker and smacking of sexual desperation—one scene involves an obsessive fan wrangling rough service from her stalkee on a gurney.
Unfortunately, the taint of melodrama similarly infects the hour-long documentary These Men of Conscience (opens September 7 at the Quad), writer-director-producer Carol Ann Francis’s homage to New York firefighters. In lengthy interviews, five men struggle to convey the source of their “need to do right,” all the while trapped in unwavering close-ups. This rigid framing is only broken by a series of static shots taken inside the firehouse—a pair of boots, a helmet, and a hose—fading into one another. Though in tribute to men of action, These Men of Conscience is incongruously sapped of any dynamism, save that provided by Loreena McKennitt’s melancholy sweep of a soundtrack, the only truly robust aspect of the film.