Patch Adams (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What is the difference between a bad melodrama and a good one? The key lies in the emotional response. If the viewer feels that he or she is being forced into reacting in a particular way because of "button pushing," the film makers have erred. While manipulation is almost always mandatory in a melodrama, it should be accomplished in such a way that no one in the audience is conscious of it at the time. Emotional high points should evolve naturally out of the plot; the storyline should not be constructed around those moments. Movies like Forrest Gump and Titanic capture the finer aspects of melodrama. Failed efforts like Patch Adams spend too much time trying to reduce the audience to tears through a series of cheap, transparent ploys.

This is yet another of those "based on a true story..." feel-good movies that's designed to make us believe that there are two kinds of human beings - free-spirits (who are the good guys) and establishment-types (who are inevitably villains). The title character, played by Robin Williams in one of his familiar dramatic/comedic turns, is a mental patient, who, during his stint in the Fairfax State Psychiatric Ward, decides that he wants to go to school to become a doctor. So, upon his release in 1971, the 40-something year old man enrolls in the Virginia Medical University. However, while the teachers preach book learning and emotional detachment, Patch believes that to treat a disease, the physician should connect with his patients. While his attitude is embraced by some of his fellow students, including a pretty co-ed named Carin Fischer (Monica Potter), Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton) forbids Patch to have contact with real patients, and, when he disobeys, he finds himself in danger of being thrown out of medical school.

The film is directed by Tom Shadyac, who helmed the first Ace Ventura movie, and written by Steve Oedekerk, who was behind the camera for the second (the pair also teamed up on the Eddie Murphy remake of The Nutty Professor). While these two arguably have some skill at comedy, they have little or none when it comes to drama. Patch Adams isn't much more than a series of overdone emotional scenes connected by a conventional plot line. Anyone interested in exploring a better approach to the same basic ideas should check out The Doctor, in which William Hurt plays a surgeon who learns about the coldness of the medical profession when he becomes a patient. In Patch Adams, there are moments of supposed emotional warmth as Patch connects with dying patients, towering sadness as he recites poetry over the coffin of a lost friend, and triumph as he overcomes the forces aligned against him. And, as is seemingly obligatory in this kind of film, there's a big speech at the end - one that makes Al Pacino's tirade in Scent of a Woman seem subtle by comparison. (It is perhaps worth noting, however, that few of the film's jokes involves flatulence, so maybe Shadyac and Oedekerk are trying to display some maturity.)

Robin Williams, who won an Oscar for his beautifully-understated role in Good Will Hunting, wavers between being effective and going over-the-top. From time-to-time, he has genuinely funny moments (when Patch Adams goes for comedy, it's not half bad), but, for the most part, the dramatic aspect of his performance is off. He's forcing the audience's emotional response. And, although attempting to replicate his work in Dead Poets Society, Williams is working with a script that isn't as polished, so some of his scenes come across as overwrought instead of heartbreaking.

The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces. Monica Potter, most recently seen in the Prefontaine biography, Without Limits, is Patch's much younger girlfriend. Daniel London is the first of his student converts. Philip Seymour Hoffman (the prank phone caller in Happiness) is Patch's straitlaced roommate. Bob Gunton is Dean Walcott, the personification of evil. Michael Jeter is Patch's mental ward cellmate. Irma P.Hall is a nurse at the hospital where Patch works his magic, and Peter Coyote is a cranky cancer patient who becomes one of Patch's greatest successes.

Patch Adams is slated for a Christmas Day release, presumably because Universal Pictures believes audiences are more susceptible to this kind of half-baked storytelling during the season of good will. However, with the even more cloying Stepmom arriving on the same day, there's bound to be a run on Kleenexes. Patch Adams is the kind of film that will work for an audience that's just interested in having an emotional experience (with a happy ending) without caring how obviously or clumsily they are manipulated. I find this sort of sledgehammer film making to be offensive, but there are those who enjoy it. Somehow, though, I don't think there are enough viewers with such a low quality threshold to right Universal Pictures' floundering financial ship. Patch Adams is another miscalculation by a studio that hasn't done much right all year.

Patch Adams (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1