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Review: Sick humor in 'Patch Adams'

Web posted on:
Monday, January 04, 1999 12:20:48 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Okay, time to put on the gloves, dammit, and I'm not the least bit happy about it. I just got done watching the latest Robin Williams smarm-alarm, "Patch Adams," so I'm in a fighting mood.

Though he really does seem like a swell person, I've always liked Williams better in theory than I do in practice. And this blubbering ass-kiss of a movie is very possibly the last straw. "Good Morning Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society," "Mrs. Doubtfire" ... shades of gray don't exist in Robin Williams World, just real mean people and real nice people.

The extremely difficult-to-miss message of "Patch Adams" (and it's the same message you get in all of Williams' most successful comedies) is that peace and love would soon reign supreme if everybody would just improvise 100 miles a minute and talk in funny voices when confronted with emotionally complex situations.

Theatrical preview for "Patch Adams"
Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Patch clowns around"
Video clip: 2.6Mb QuickTime

Laughter can cleanse the world! Can't we all see that?! Why are we so blind to the healing power of big, drippy, gooey, gloppy sentimental laughter?! (Now I'm acting like an insect and slamming into the wall! Now I'm talking like John Wayne! Now I'm prancing around like a gay hairdresser! Somebody stop my irrepressible spirit!)

No subtle zest for life here

Good golly, that Patch Adams has a zest for life that you and I can only dream of! The guy that Williams is supposed to be playing this time around is a real-life doctor who evidently insists on acting "zany" around his patients, rather than coldly treating them like mere statistics. Boiled down to blockbuster Esperanto, that means that he wants to be real nice while other doctors -- who, as we all know, don't care one little bit about anybody, whether they're sick or not -- are real mean.

So Williams puts on a very subtle clown nose. He's not really a doctor during the movie, by the way. He's just a wacky, life-affirming med student who was once locked up in a mental hospital. During his internment, he quickly realized that big, drippy, gooey, sentimental laughter can work wonders on manic depressives. This is illustrated -- in full-color black-and-white -- when Patch helps a hysterical patient (played by Michael Jeter) "shoot" a bunch of imaginary squirrels that he sees running around his hospital room.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Patch is pretending he sees the squirrels, too! The violins on the soundtrack swell their approval, so you know it's working. This is just what that poor man has needed all along! Why couldn't all those doctors see it? The fact that he's still going to be delusional when the scene is finished simply doesn't enter into it. Those violins are the same thing as being cured.

ALSO: The real Dr. Patch Adams says Gesundheit!

His immediate success in ridding the room of pretend squirrels soon convinces Patch that he should go to medical school and become a doctor. Apparently, they teach you how to kill all kinds of nonexistent rodents in medical school. And, if the doctors there are more concerned with inhumane stuff like research and proven medication, why, Patch'll show 'em! He'll just have to comically walk around the chemotherapy ward while wearing bedpans for shoes. And if that doesn't work, he'll make balloon animals, wake patients up in the middle of the night, and have them take target practice with rubber-band guns.

My dad (God rest his soul) just died of cancer a few months ago, and I guarantee you a nurse would have soon been extracting a balloon giraffe from Adams' wacky, life-affirming rectum if he'd tried this groundbreaking technique on him.

Box office no indicator

"Patch Adams" is absolutely awful, and it made 25 million bucks this past weekend. I realize that, in a lot of minds, that automatically makes me wrong, but this is a classic case of people plopping down the cost of a ticket to see a reenactment of the movie's poster.

As soon as I laid eyes on that poster, I knew we were in for trouble. There's Williams, wearing his clown nose and in full sugar-gush, staring down as a small child's hand reaches up to squeeze his melancholy nose. A sick child's hand. A small, sick child's hand. This image is the equivalent of being punched in the heart with a fistful of dollars. Williams is being sold like an Oscar-winning Muppet.

Aside from a ridiculous, tear-jerking plot twist that I won't type for fear of debasing my fingertips, the other characters are just there to have their floundering spirits lifted by Patch, or to angrily stand in his way while he tries to soak the vicinity with his unbridled wonderfulness. Chief among the real mean people is Patch's dean, played by Bob Gunton. Gunton's so obviously the bad guy, he oughta be wearing a black cowboy hat. He constantly belittles St. Patch's "flighty theories of goodness" and says understated things like, "Patients don't need a friend! They need a doctor!" Just in case you didn't know what was going on three seconds after the movie started.

This is written by Steve Oedekerk and directed by Tom Shadyac, the team behind the "Ace Ventura" movies (our motto: "more-more-more"), so the complete absence of a light touch isn't exactly a shock. But "Babe: Pig in the City" has more to do with real human emotions than this thing does, no matter how often Oedekerk and Shadyac pretend that Patch is the only health care person on earth who's capable of actually feeling anything. God help us; I smell an unbelievably mawkish sitcom on the horizon.

"Patch Adams" contains some bad language and instances of frat-boy rude humor. If you have any self-respect, you'll want to slap that nose off Williams' face...though, if people had any self-respect, the movie wouldn't have already made 25 million dollars. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes, roughly 60 of which are comprised of reaction shots of Williams "looking compassionate."

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