Directed by Tom Shadyac. Starring Robin Williams, Monica Potter, Daniel London, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Coyote, Michael Jeter, Bob Gunton, Harold Gould, Irma P. Hall, Harve Presnell, Richard Kiley. (1998, PG-13, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 25, 1998
Let's confess my biases up front: God help the doctor who comes near me wearing a bulbous red clown nose, and God help the movie doctor who wants me to believe that a few good belly laughs are nature's best medicine. Now, I know that laughter is undeniably good for the soul and good for the constitution, and that doctors are generally too dependent on their scalpels and potions and protocols. In my lifetime, I have experienced doctors who have been sweethearts and doctors who have been jerks, but the only thing that has mattered in the long run was their skill. Patch Adams, which is based on the true experiences of Dr. Hunter Adams as recounted in his book Gesundheit: Good Health Is a Laughing Matter, is predicated on the notion that treating a patient involves so much more than merely treating the individual's symptoms. As the title character, Robin Williams picks up the doctoring game pretty much where he left off in Awakenings. Still playing a character based on a real person/doctor, Patch Adams shares many of the same iconoclastic attributes of Awakening's Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie begins in 1969 as Adams commits himself to a mental hospital, where he discovers that his true calling is to help people as a medical doctor. At the age of 39, he enrolls in medical school where he easily aces his courses but riles under the system's harsh paternalism and unwavering educational traditions. Instantly, he defies the power structure, and is punished for his “excessive happiness.” These are the kinds of black-and-white polarizations that Patch Adams sets up and maintains throughout. The members of the medical hierarchy are all close-minded slaves to the past; Patch and his friends are the saviors of the medical profession, the true healers of the sick. Patch is willing to dress in a clown costume, gorilla suit, and angel wings, or dunk a dying woman in a pool full of noodles (don't ask) in order to bring happiness to the ill. (I'd like to see him billing the HMOs for such treatments.) And Patch is unwilling to wait until his third year of medical school in order to have contact with real patients, so he sneaks into rounds and onto the wards. Though Patch's methods are disputable, there is little intrinsically wrong with his thinking. Where the movie really errs is in its failure to place the story in any kind of historical context. Patch Adams' thinking is an outgrowth of the turbulence of the late Sixties and early Seventies; his renegade approach to medicine had parallels in all other areas of life, be they cultural, political, educational, or professional. The mood in the land was to “question authority” and find new structures. But as directed by Tom Shadyac and written by Steve Oedkerk, the team who collaborated on Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor, this new movie is a variation on Patch Adams: Clown Physician. Robin Williams lends his increasingly annoying manic dramatic persona to the fore, creating another character out of sheer force of enthusiasm instead of motivation. Monica Potter reprises much the same thankless girlfriend role she played in Without Limits. Audiences may find this pap brimming with heart and sympathy for the little guy, but as prescriptions go, Patch Adams is pure placebo.