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'Patch Adams': Physician, Steel Thyself

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

Patch Adams
"Patch Adams" and Robin Williams don't quite hit it on the nose. (Universal)

Tom Shadyac
Robin Williams;
Monica Potter;
Philip Seymour Hoffman;
Bob Gunton;
Daniel London;
Peter Coyote;
Michael Jeter;
Richard Kiley
Running Time:
1 hour, 50 minutes
Contains mild scenes of illness and death
There should be a special room in Hell where the makers of films like "Patch Adams" are sent. There they will be force-fed treacle through a funnel and made to endure lectures from the morally superior.

For that is exactly the experience they are selling in this movie, which pretends to be about humanizing medicine but is really about canonizing Robin Williams. Williams's Patch is not only holier than thou but holier than all of us as he floats through the world with a red rubber ball on his nose, curing with laughter.

It's probably true that laughter is a form of medicine, but so, probably, is sex, as well as video games, trashy novels, crossword puzzles, professional wrestling, soap operas and Zen. The theory is the same: You forget your pain, you leave the haunted temple of your own anxious skull, and you heal more quickly.

But "Patch Adams" means to elevate this principle into a nomination for the Nobel Prize in medicine, while scoffing at doctors who work themselves bleary trying humbly to save lives. It's about a med student who never bothers to study but has plenty of time to perfect his comedy monologues.

What resemblance this character bears to the authentic Hunter "Patch" Adams, MD, of Arlington, I leave to others to document. I can only say that the movie, "based on a true story," whatever that means, is as annoying as it is long and as long as it is loud and as loud as it is annoying. It's a Moebius strip of irritations.

When we first meet him, Hunter Adams has voluntarily committed himself to a public mental institution because of suicidal tendencies. He has a chronic wise guy's mouth and the soulful look of someone who's watched too much daytime television in motel rooms. But when he helps a fellow resident overcome a fear – imaginary squirrels pick at the guy's feet, preventing him from going to the bathroom – he gets such a rush out of it, he finds a new purpose in life: to be a doctor.

But right there you have the problem with the movie: It's not about helping the patient, it's about making the doctor feel good about himself. Indeed, there's such a subtext of preening narcissism, of vanity exploded out to the horizon, that "Patch Adams" becomes hard to bear. It's continually setting up straw men – tie-wearing, stern elderly white men who stand for "the Establishment" – for Williams's Patch to outshine without popping a sweat. It's about altruism as a form of psychosis.

It fails utterly to convey the immense labor of becoming a physician, or the discipline, the commitment, the sheer concentration that must be involved. It refuses to see medical education as a rite of passage, but merely as a series of noncompetitive seminars on the theme of self-esteem. And it appears to have nothing to do with curing patients. It's about a doctor who uses his patients as an audience to aggrandize his own feelings of importance.

The movie, set at a fictitious medical school in Virginia, moves through predictable scenarios of Patch getting the last word or the last quip and his patients always being rewarded for their applause with a cure, except for those who die. That Patch, whatta wacky humanist guy! He's like Mother Teresa of the Catskills, a relentless laugh-extortionist who looks for gratifications everywhere. He all but says to a dying man: Now, take your disease. Please!

The movie lets Patch skate on the one tough issue it dares raise against him, when a colleague (Julia Roberts clone Monica Potter), ensnared in his fantasy of medicine as stand-up comedy, rushes off to hold hands with a disturbed man who ultimately kills her. Patch feels bad about this for maybe as long as 30 seconds, before someone tells him the show has to go on.

Bob Gunton, who seems always to get these parts because of his resemblance to Henry Kissinger, draws the unfortunate role of the priggy dean who opposes Patch. You can tell he's evil: He wears a tie whereas Patch's humanity is expressed through his nutty shirts. When he attempts to expel Patch for practicing medicine without a license – Patch is completely guilty of this crime, as even the movie makes clear – it's merely to set up a bogus "hearing" where Patch can deliver a diatribe in favor of himself. Like all too many figures in the news today, he has himself hopelessly confused with the issue. He thinks he's being moral while he makes a staggeringly selfish plea in his own self-interest.

If Williams and his pal director Tom Shadyac believe so completely in this stuff, I wonder if the next time their kids get sick, they'll call a comedian instead of a doctor.

Now, take this movie – please!

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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