Arthur Mendelson: You’re focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution. Never focus on the problem!
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
The late Robin Williams left behind an immense legacy of comedy and heart in many of his movies: Hook, Aladdin, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, I could go on but we have a review to cover and sadly this movie (based on a real person) wasn’t one of those movies despite its attempt to give comedy and heart.
The story involves Hunter “Patch” Adams who checks into a mental ward due to struggling with depression. After utilizing humor to help his fellow patients he decides to want to become a medical doctor and enrolls at Virginia Medical University but clashes with Dean Walcott who seemingly has a soulless approach on patient care that runs throughout the school. With the help of a couple friends, Adams starts up his own medical clinic for people without insurance.
The story paints itself as a classic free-spirited underdog taking on the trappings of the establishment. The production values and the performances by all the cast members are nothing short of solid, which would normally make us, root for this kind of story. But as a cinematic telling of the story of Patch Adams and its overall outlook on the practice of medicine it really suffers. This movie’s portrayal of Patch Adams paints him far more of a comedian than a professional doctor. He spends most of his time joking around with patients and is rarely seen actually utilizing skills to help them much less actually seen studying with his fellow students and yet somehow ends up one of the top testing students. It paints its picture of medical care very much in black and white showing little interest in the difficulties of the matter. As far as the movie is concerned Patch’s methods are rightful and just and anybody who thinks otherwise is outdated. Even Patch’s reflection after the death of Carin Fisher due to her taking a piece of his advice is only brief before he sees a butterfly (you’ll have to see the movie to understand that) and decides to resume his cause.
Robin Williams can definitely be funny and him and Monica Potter as love interest Carin Fisher do well in working off one another. But in being Patch Adams his clowning around is mostly childish and comes off as just another loud Robin Williams character which can be get a couple of laughs with him just being himself. But this just isn’t a role that works for the character he’s given to play and it can really cross some lines in a lot of his actions, which really make him unlikable and hard to root for. As far as the movie is showing us, as the film continues, the people trying to stop Patch are just doing their job trying to prevent Patch from being a danger to several patients and presumably himself as well.
The rest of the characters are rather underdeveloped. The one character that does stand out is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Patch’s roommate and rival who does not take kindly to Patch’s methods but eventually warms up to them. And while his arc is predictable, the scene where he calls Patch out believing he cheated pretty much says it all. But even that’s not saving the movie.
It’s one thing when the movie is trying to funny and Williams’ routines are at times genuinely entertaining in small doses. But when the movie is trying to be emotional it really goes over dramatic with the music and the its blatant attempts to make Patch’s ways matter more than anything else. The death of the girlfriend in particular is insulting not only given that she was actually a man in real life but also given that it completely brings to the forefront the problem with Patch’s teachings and yet the movie continues to praise them as right.
Patch Adams may try to emphasize the importance of emotional interaction with patients and new forms of treatment but it lacks subtlety and paints extremes of the situation, which really take away from its message and oversimplify it. I will always remember Robin Williams for how much joy he brought into the lives of many in both his movies and stand-up, this isn’t something that I can remember fondly despite the joyous moments. There’s a good movie to be had about the real Patch Adams but this most certainly isn’t something that represents his teachings.