Based on Adams's book Gesundheit: Good Health Is a Laughing Matter,
the film recalls his experiences as a med student seeking the human touch
in a world of stuffy professionals. Unfortunately, Steve Oedekerk's screen
adaptation and the directing by Shadyac (Liar Liar, The Nutty
Professor) both pander to the lowest common denominator of moviegoers.
The film is formulaic from the word go, with so many trite, overused devices
that it could serve as a primer for "things to avoid when making an
original movie." Choosing Robin Williams for the title role was not
exactly a bold move either, since we have seen him do this exact same performance
in a half dozen other films, from Good Morning, Vietnam to Toys
to Good Will Hunting to What Dreams May Come. This crowd-pleasing
strategy may well be by choice, however, as the bulk of the film's proceeds
will allegedly go toward the establishment of Adams's Gesundheit Institute,
to be located somewhere in West Virginia.
After a bout with suicidal depression, Hunter Adams (Williams) checks
himself into a mental institution. Noticing how indifferent the resident
doctors are to his and his fellow inmates' conditions, he finds he can help
others by seeing things from their sometimes skewed perspective. In teaching
them to laugh at themselves, he teaches them to laugh. Having discovered
this talent for helping people, he leaves the institution and enrolls in
medical school, but the stuffy atmosphere and prohibitive rules turn him
off med students are not even allowed to see patients until
they're in their third year.
So he simply circumvents those rules: He begins seeing patients wearing
a meat packer's smock as a lab coat. With laughter as the best medicine,
he brings about emotional (and sometimes physical) progress in some patients
and soon becomes the most beloved "doctor" at the university hospital.
His med school friends Truman (Daniel London) and Carin (Monica Potter)
are dubious of his methods at first, but when they see the results, they
come on board. The only one who is not amused is the surly Dean Walcott
(Bob Gunton), who wants nothing more than to bring him down.
There is no doubt that Dr. Adams's cause is a noble one, but it's a shame that the film is not more believable, especially since it is based on his true story. The character of Patch is too perfect; everything comes easily to him. Everything he does is right and true; every misfortune that befalls him is an appalling injustice. And at each moment of emotional impact, we are treated to a huge music swell and a crane shot. The acting is not bad, but predictable plot elements and transparent emotional manipulations give the film a tone not unlike one of the later episodes of M*A*S*H. It's a great idea and a great cause, but from a critical standpoint, Patch Adams is not a great movie. ***
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