Doctor Giggles

Robin Williams' Patch Adams is an undoubted misfire

No less conservative a publication than Reader's Digest long ago proclaimed laughter the best medicine, but according to Patch Adams, the medical establishment is nowhere near that perception. The movie, freely based on the true-life tale of Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams, is set up as the story of a saintly visionary persecuted by philistines--you half expect Patch, played between blackout comedy bits by Robin Williams, to be stoned to death by his teachers amid cries of "Blasphemy! Blasphemy!"

On an academic level, that may not be too far off from the experience of the real Dr. Adams, an early partisan of the sensible idea that humor and whimsy can be therapeutic. But academic persecution is subtle, and Patch Adams has all the subtlety of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the feature debut of Patch's director Tom Shadyac, or of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, the feature debut of Patch's screenwriter Steve Oedekerk. The movie, adapted from a book called Gesundheit: Good Health Is a Laughing Matter by Adams and Maureen Mylander, is maybe a little less horrible than the trailers and TV ads make it look. But only a little.

About the first half of the film is tolerable, because it offers a big role--the only role, really--with plenty of elbow room to Williams, and he stretches out in it and provides many funny and touching individual scenes. Patch receives both his nickname and his calling--no milder term for it will do--during a stay as a patient in a mental hospital. Instead of trying to talk his fellow patients out of their obsessions and phobias, Patch decides to explore them, discuss them, turn his own imagination loose on them. When the other patients respond positively to this technique, Patch is elated.

He enters a Virginia medical school--the script jumps through some hoops to explain Williams' age--and, seemingly before his colleagues have learned which bone the leg bone connects to, Patch is in the wards of the hospital with an enema ball stuck on his nose, cutting up for the patients and ruffling the feathers of his teachers. Many of the free-floating sequences of Williams' (obviously improvised) antics are good for a chuckle in themselves, and there are a lot of them--Shadyac assembles montage upon montage of shtick and uses these montages in place of a plot.

Then, halfway through the film, the gags are dropped in favor of the rhetorical speechifying, which inspires a different sort of gag. Toward the end, Patch is called on the carpet by a panel of AMA muck-a-mucks that has the temerity to question whether he ought to be running a clinic without, you know, actually being a doctor yet. Patch excoriates the panel for its small-mindedness while a peanut gallery of supporting players watches adoringly from a balcony, in a fairly embarrassing visual paraphrase of To Kill a Mockingbird.

How much of this narrative accurately reflects the real story of Dr. Adams is hard to say without reading his book, which I haven't done. But it doesn't really matter. Even if it's close to the facts in content--which is unlikely--stylistically the film is a pure Hollywoodization in the schlockiest sense. It's quite possible that Patch Adams is the worst movie that the greatly talented Williams has ever made, and I include in that accounting the first film in which he appeared, the lewd sketch comedy Can I Do It . . . 'Til I Need Glasses?.

But Patch Adams will probably be a hit. Williams always seems to be received best by the public in soupy items like Good Morning, Vietnam or Mrs. Doubtfire, while his uneven but original gems such as Cadillac Man or The Survivors or (my favorite) The Best of Times are ignored.

In Patch Adams, Oedekerk and Shadyac dish up the self-congratulatory schmaltz that professional funnymen often regard as high seriousness, and Williams does nothing to discourage them. They're all acutely aware that the material taps into the growing (and very justified) societal disgust with the modern health-care system. A medical professional with a different approach makes for an irresistible hero, and the audience eats Patch up, with the filmmakers squirting on the whipped cream as fast as they can.

Of course doctors tend to be too uppity. In a historical context, this is largely a reactionary attitude--it's only in the last 100 years or so that they've had any grounds to be. In earlier centuries they were often figures of fun, and with good reason; a huge number of them, all the way back to Galen--who based his human anatomy texts on monkeys, as human dissection was sacreligious--were simply quacks.

Now that the profession, aided by astonishing technological advances, has made real headway toward averting death, the danger of patient depersonalization has become a very real one--medical indifference, far more than medical arrogance, can reduce people to a batch of symptoms. Against this, a healthy dose of Patch's style of humanity wouldn't be a bad thing. But given the not unreasonable fear that such methods could be attempted as a replacement for scientific treatment rather than as a supplement to it, there's no way that they wouldn't--or shouldn't--be met with caution, suspicion, even hostility.

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