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Patch Adams

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Patch Adams

Starring: Robin Williams, Monica Potter
Director: Tom Shadyac
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel London, Josef Sommer, Irma P. Hall, Peter Coyote, Michael Jeter

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If you are a reluctant public speaker, you are advised by a recent study to avoid having your fans in the audience. Mothers, dads, sweetheart and all others who might be rooting for you could disrupt your talk. You're better off speaking to a bunch of strangers who have no particular opinion of your merit. Sounds strange? The explanation is that you will be especially nervous in front of your devotees for fear of letting them down. Could we stretch this concept a bit and apply it to medicine? Sure. If you are performing life- threatening surgery on a member of your own family, you may be particularly jittery, since a mistake could cost you someone you hold dear. In other words, it's best for doctors not to be emotionally involved with the patients they are treating. Some physicians, though, go to the other extreme and are absolute cold fish. You want the best that technology has to offer if you're in the hospital, but you also want human beings to treat you as a person and not just as a disease. "I'm wheeling in the appendix from room 303," just doesn't cut it, so to speak.

Now, "Patch Adams" is about a physician who violates the rule against emotional involvement, an infraction which brings him in conflict with the administrator of a hospital and dean of his medical school. By the conclusion of the film he has gained the enthusiastic approval of everyone else--the girl of his dreams who was repelled by him at first meeting, the roommate who challenged his way of thinking, the kids in the cancer ward, the nurses who pretty much said "let Patch be Patch," even the head of a medical disciplinary board that considered expelling him from school. Patch Adams is probably going to be your hero, especially if you've ever gone to the typical full-of-himself, godlike doctor who may hardly make eye contact with you or call you by name or refer to you by anything except a case. He clowns around wildly with the deadly sick kids, using an enema bulb to make a red nose; he insists that a diabetic being studied by a group of medical students be called by her name and not "the diabetic," when making the round he wears shirts that Hawaiians would consider loud. He's a genuine human being. But alas, he's not the sort of guy you'd want for your own physician. While he pricks the pretensions of the pompous practitioners, he goes to the other extreme instead of finding the golden mean. You want your professional to be highly sympathetic, even get somewhat emotionally involved with you and your background. But for laughter, you'd best do what the late editor of Saturday Review magazine, Norman Cousin, did when he was hospitalized with a fatal illness. Rent Charlie Chaplin movies, look at the Marx Brothers, laugh laugh laugh. But you don't want your doctor wear a Pinocchio nose or an enema bulb, do you?

Though Patch Adams may not be your cup of curative chicken soup, the movie, which is based on an actual person, is involving and emotionally fulfilling, if quite a bit over- sentimental. Conventionally directed like a TV story by Tom Shadyac and based on Hunter Doherty Adams's own story, "Patch Adams" begins in 1969 when Adams voluntary checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, a suicidal wreck. There he discovers that he has the gift to reach his fellow patients, something the head psychiatrist is unable to do since the latter does not even look his clients in the eye. ("You suck at helping people," Patch says, even though the year is 1969.) Though middle-aged, he decides at that point that he wants to help people and, with the aid of his brilliant mind, is able to enroll in medical school and attain super grades with a minimum of studying. He falls in love with one of the few women in the class (the adorable Monica Potter who looks about twenty years his junior) and with the help of an empathetic classmate, Truman Schiff (Daniel London), he converts that ultra-serious student to his philosophy. His ideology can be summed up, "You treat a disease, you win you treat a patient and I guarantee you'll win."

Much of the film is taken up shtick performed by the title character, played wonderfully and with sincerity by Robin Williams, who has sprung back from his role in the disastrous "What Dreams May Come." As Adams, Mr. Williams finds that he can draw laughter from people of all walks of life and ages, as he demonstrates in speaking to a convention of meat packers where he jokes, "In New Zealand they found a new use for sheep...wool." As the school's dean, Bob Gunton is appropriately villainous, a man whose serious stature is threatened by this great bag of fun. Their personality clash leads to Adams's near dismissal from the school for violating just about every rule of proper behavior in the book, but Adams brings out the humanity of other doctors, such as one played by Josef Sommer (who is, by the way, exactly the sort of physician I would like to have rather than Adams) and the head honcho played by Harve Presnell.

The major drawback of the work is its conventional story- telling, not too different in structure from what you might see on the tube. But given the hostility that so many people have against the presumptuousness of the medical profession on whom we all depend so much, you will be drawn to Robin Williams's temperament however much you may find it excessively good-natured and whimsical. After all, his character did ultimately establish a large, free clinic for uninsured patients called the Gesundheit Hospital on 105 acres of countryside. "Patch Adams" should have been released years ago where it could have served as effective advertising for the Clinton medical plan.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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