December 21, 1981 12:00 PM

“This hospital will kill no quadriplegic before his time,” sasses Richard Dreyfuss to his doctors after an auto accident has doomed him to life in a hospital bed. Such gallows humor was the core of the Broadway hit that won a Tony for British actor Tom Conti and raves for Mary Tyler Moore when she replaced him. In this film version, Dreyfuss gives a touching performance despite a rabbity laugh and mannerisms that make one cringe. Director John (Saturday Night Fever) Badham tries to open up a basically one-set play, and does everything but mount his camera on roller skates, even adding a silly nude ballet dream sequence. The sideshows unnecessarily damage Brian Clark’s play. Still, the script, by Clark and Reginald Rose, has its own carefully constructed power. When Dreyfuss asks that his life-support systems be disconnected, he confronts hospital chief of staff John Cassavetes and statuesque doctor Christine Lahti, who cries a lot, for all her medical training. Then, with the help of a lawyer (Bob Balaban), Dreyfuss successfully argues his case before a judge (Kenneth McMillan). In these sequences, when the fine cast is allowed to play the material as written, the film triumphantly regains its grip on itself—and on our minds and hearts. (R)

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