Saturday 3 November 2018

Movie Review: Patch Adams (1998)

A biographical drama and comedy, Patch Adams examines one man's attempt to humanize medical care.

It's the late 1960s, and after a suicide attempt Hunter "Patch" Adams (Robin Williams) admits himself to a psychiatric facility. He discovers a talent for connecting with fellow patients at a personal level and making them laugh, improving their disposition. He checks himself out and pursues a dream to become a doctor, enrolling at the Medical College of Virginia. He befriends fellow-student Truman Schiff (Daniel London), but his attempts to get to know classmate Carin Fisher (Monica Potter) are initially firmly rebuffed.

Patch is disappointed with the limited patient interaction afforded to medical students, and starts surreptitiously visiting hospital patients to provide companionship and humour. His anti-establishment antics incur the wrath of Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton) and the contempt of his studious roommate Mitch Roman (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Patch achieves high course marks in addition to espousing a different approach to providing care, and slowly gathers a circle of followers to practice medicine differently.

Loosely based on the life of the real Dr. Adams and directed by Tom Shadyac, the film stays close to traditional free-spirit-versus-the-establishment trappings. With quality production values and solid performances from a good cast, Patch Adams delivers the requisite call to cheer for the underdog rocking the boat. But the film's blatant aggrandization coupled with an excessively mawkish music score provide an overdose of sugar.

For all the good intentions on display to support Adams' genuinely caring and charitable approach to patient treatment, the film stubbornly ignores some fundamental questions. Investing large amounts of time with a few patients must mean that many other patients are left behind. Adams' dream of providing free treatment for all is laudable except that funding has to come from somewhere. And an expansive, humour-filled and personable approach to patient care works with a Robin Williams-like personality, but maybe not so much for doctors not bestowed with such extroverted talent.

The Steve Oedekerk script is not interested in exploring the difficult sides of these issue, and is instead content to portray Adams as purely good and absolutely just, and anyone who disagrees with him as a fossil. There is a brief moment of reflection when Adams' methods contribute to tragedy, but before long a butterfly flutters its wings and it's back to the cause.

Williams and Monica Potter lead the cast and complement each other. Shadyac allows Williams enough free reign to sprinkle welcome humour and sharp wit at regular intervals, and otherwise the star remains adequately focused. Potter is the antidote, and for most of the film provides Carin with a spine of resilience to Adams' charms.

Patch Adams highlights the need for the medical profession to remember the name behind the number on the chart, but does so with all the subtlety of a bold underline with triple exclamation marks.

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  1. still find this weaker compared to Penny Marshall's Awakenings and the idea of turning Patch's real-life friend a man into a woman and make her a love interest for Patch was really odd. But yes, Patch Adams is more of a fluff piece, rather than a medical based drama that delves deep enough.

    1. Good summary. I did not mind too much the creative licence of introducing a love interest and changing Adams' age to suit Williams in the role (this is Hollywood, after all!), but this still could have been a more probing drama.

    2. Contrary to your comments about Monica Potter, I didn't care much for her character and as with the secondary characters they were underdeveloped. Patch Adams is more about the Robin Williams show. Even though he has done far better elsewhere.

  2. And that's not to say it wasn't watchable, as it was for me. But I totally get why it wasn't as well received by critics


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