MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Robin Williams (Hunter "Patch" Adams), Daniel London (Truman), Monica Potter (Carin), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Mitch), Bob Gunton (Dean Walcott), Josef Sommer (Dr. Eaton), Irma P. Hall (Joletta), Frances Lee McCain (Judy), Harve Presnell (Dean Anderson)
"Patch Adams" would have been a much better movie if it had been more about its real-life subject and less about Robin Williams. Don't get me wrong--Williams is a fine actor, and in the right project with the right director, he can be sheer dynamite. Unfortunately, "Patch Adams" is not the right project for him because it's too much of what we've already seen before in better movies like "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987) and "Dead Poets Society" (1989). And director Tom Shadyac, best known for flatulent comedies like "Ace Venture: Pet Detective" (1993), "The Nutty Professor" (1995), and "Liar Liar" (1997), is no Barry Levinson or Peter Weir.
That "Patch Adams" is based on a true story is impossible to miss. It's plastered on all the movie posters, and the first thing we see in the movie is a disclaimer informing us of its basis in fact. However, it's hard to ascertain just how much of the film is exaggeration and how much of it really happened because it never feels real. It always feels like a Robin Williams movie, where the main features are either a) Williams acting spontaneously comical and goofy; b) Williams throwing off quips and one-liners; or c) Williams making great dramatic speeches. There's little else in-between.
The story is about Hunter "Patch" Adams, a medical student in the early 1970s who had radical beliefs about the healing power of laughter that ran smack in the face of the medical establishment, most clearly epitomized by the rigid, unsmiling, and utterly one-dimensional character of Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), who is just slightly less of a stick-in-the-mud than Dean Wormer from "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1981). Walcott fits snugly in a long line of movie characters who are written and performed for no other purpose than to be despised by the audience and made to look ridiculous by the nonconformist hero. In a movie like "Animal House," this base structure works. But, in a movie like "Patch Adams" that is clearly striving to be an emotional drama, it is far too simplistic.
The film opens with Patch checking himself into a mental institution for depression and suicidal tendencies. This section of the film plays like a Lite version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with Patch clashing with unsympathetic doctors and forming bonds with his fellow neglected patients. When he realizes that his humor and individualism can help the other patients, he decides to go to medical school. He doesn't want to be a "Doctor" with a capital "D" who wears a white coat and feels superior to everyone around him; rather, he has the simple idealism of wanting to help people.
And this he does, by making "illegal" visits to the hospital, even though first year med-students are not supposed to have any contact with patients. He repeatedly defies this mandate by visiting the children's ward and putting a red enema bulb on his nose, helping an old man enjoy his last safari by letting him shoot balloon animals with a pellet gun, and taking the bitter rage out of a dying cancer patient (Peter Coyote) by dressing like an angel and reading a list of synonyms for death.
Of course, this idealism is constantly swatted at while he is in medical school. Dean Walcott tries to throw him out not once, but twice, and his roommate, a stuffy know-it-all played uncomfortably by Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Boogie Nights," "Happiness") tries to turn him in for cheating because he can't believe Patch could make such good grades without studying during every waking moment. That Patch is such a genius is taken for granted to the point of being ignored. Just once I wanted to see him display some medical prowess that would demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge, but the most medicinal act he performs in the whole film is drawing blood.
Despite all the opposition he faces, Patch does have his supporters. Early on he meets a geeky med student named Truman (Daniel London), who later helps him found the Gesundheit Institute, a free clinic that started in a wooden ranch house. Patch also gains the affections of an initially cold female med student, Carin (Monica Potter), who also ends up helping his cause.
The script was written by Steve Oedekerk, the writer/director of "Ace Venture: When Nature Calls" (1995) and "Nothing to Lose" (1997). There is little to suggest that he has anything other than a tin ear for drama, as most of the emotional moments are either predictable, overwrought, or both. The script follows a time-honored up-and-down pattern where the nonconformist hero presents his ideals, fights through adversity, is met with a tragedy that temporarily crushes his spirits, but then sees the light and comes back stronger than ever to victory in the end. This pattern works when it isn't quite so noticeable, but Oedekerk's script is so obvious that even the reasonably good scenes, including an unexpected death, feel trite.
The entirety of "Patch Adams" is designed to be a pure, sentimental crowd-pleaser, and the design shows through the narrative and emotional gaps that are insufficiently plugged with Mark Shaiman's overburdened music. If the film had been better constructed and better directed, it might have worked; instead, it comes off as trying way too hard, and thus it never truly gets under your skin and into your heart.
©1998 James Kendrick