Shamelessly sappy and emotionally manipulative, “Patch Adams” is an aggressively heartwarming comedy-drama that may be roasted by critics but embraced by ticketbuyers. Robin Williams pulls out all the stops in a lead role that gives him carte blanche to careen between extremes of silliness and sentimentality; he tries too hard, too obviously, much like the pic itself. Even so, it’s unwise to underestimate the appeal of a popular star doing crowd-pleasing shtick in slickly packaged Hollywood hokum. Prospects are good for a healthy, if not record-breaking, theatrical run, and an extended shelf-life on video and cable.
Williams is cast — perhaps too perfectly — as Hunter “Patch” Adams, a real-life physician who places great stock in the therapeutic value of laughter in his personalized approach to caregiving. Beginning in the early 1970s, when he entered medical school, and continuing today, as he operates an unorthodox clinic in West Virginia, Adams often has annoyed the medical establishment by minimizing the boundaries between doctor and patient. In Adams’ view, doctors must be empathic, not objective, and deal compassionately with human beings rather than simply diagnose diseases. It also helps if you can bring a little standup comedy to your bedside manner.
Based on “Gesundheit: Good Health is a Laughing Matter,” the 1993 book Adams wrote with Maureen Mylander, “Patch Adams” begins in 1969 as the eponymous protagonist checks himself into a mental hospital after attempting suicide.
The sensitive young Adams — played by a conspicuously middle-aged Williams — is pleasantly surprised to discover he has the ability to heal himself while cheering his fellow patients. More important, he recognizes that he’s better equipped to provide emotional healing than the hospital’s chief psychiatrist.
Flash forward two years: Patch is a first-year student at Virginia Medical College, burning with idealistic desire to “treat the patient as well as the disease.” His beaming cheeriness immediately upsets his stuffy roommate, Mitch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a physician’s son who’s deadly serious about good grades and family tradition. He’s also the only character in the entire pic who notices that Patch is a little old to be starting medical school. But his lack of humor makes him an easy target for the audience’s scorn.
Even so, Patch faces an even more formidable nemesis in Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), a sternly authoritarian taskmaster who has little patience for Patch’s touchy-feely sentiments. There is no depth or shading to this overstated and underwritten bad guy. Right from the start, he warns his medical students that he will “rigorously and ruthlessly train the humanity out of you and turn you into something better.” Subtlety is not this pic’s strong point.
Patch is so eager to do good by making merry that he defies the rules that keep first-year students from interacting with patients at the university hospital. With the help of a friendly nurse (Irma P. Hall), he slips into children’s wards to literally clown around for young patients. He also tries to amuse some ailing adults, and even manages to win over a surly cancer patient played by Peter Coyote. In one of many scenes that defy credibility while jerking tears, Coyote’s character banishes his wife and children from his bedside, so he can spend his final moments with Patch.
Despite repeated attempts by Dean Walcott to have Patch expelled, our hero makes great grades and close friends. Better still, Patch wins over an initially frosty fellow student, Carin (Monica Potter), and convinces her to take part in his program to establish a free clinic where they’ll “use humor to cure pain and suffering.” Mind you, it’s a clinic in a wooded area far outside the city limits, raising questions about accessibility that the pic never addresses, but everyone has his or her heart in the right place.
Everyone, that is, except Dean Walcott. And, more important, a troubled patient who triggers a devastating tragedy.
The latter setback brings Patch to the very edge of despair. Fortunately, his faith in himself (and his methods) is restored just in time, thanks to what appears to be nothing less than a sign from God.
It’s hard to believe that this schmaltzy concoction is the joint effort of director Tom Shadyac and screenwriter Steve Oedekerk, who previously teamed for “The Nutty Professor” and “Ace Venture: Pet Detective.” For all its basis in fact, “Patch Adams” seems to exist in a never-never land of movie cliches and simplistic absolutes. Pic makes no effort beyond costuming and production design to root its narrative in the real world of the early 1970s; indeed, there are some glaring anachronisms in the dialogue. (“That’s my job.” “Yeah, but you suck at it.”)
Nobody ever mentions the Vietnam War, much less the anti-war movement, on the medical school campus. More to the point, Patch’s anti-establishment attitudes are never linked — not even by Dean Walcott — to other student-led rebellions of the day. If the era weren’t specifically mentioned in onscreen titles, many moviegoers might mistake this period story for a contemporary yarn.
Although he’s undeniably hilarious in many scenes, Williams broadly overplays the holy foolishness of his saintly Patch Adams. More than once, the audience may agree with a classmate who remarks: “God, you’re being so self-indulgent!”
Among the supporting players, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a standout as he struggles mightily — and, to his credit, successfully — to flesh out a tissue-thin character. Monica Potter makes a strong and sympathetic impression as Carin, but Bob Gunton is lucklessly stuck in a role of one-note villainy.
Composer Marc Shaiman provides a syrupy score that thoughtfully informs the audience exactly what to feel and precisely when to feel it. Other tech credits are adequate.