Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:55 - Released 12/25/98

Affordable health care is a topic regularly discussed in this country by presidential candidates and members of Congress. Anyone who has ever filed a health insurance claim knows the frustration inherent in that process. The American medical profession has also come under fire for making quality care unaffordable to patients without insurance, and putting financial concerns above the desire to help people. Tom Shadyac's film Patch Adams is based on the true story of Dr. Hunter Doherty Adams, a physician who resisted these established trends of the industry and began a health care facility where humor is the primary medicine and free care is cheerfully available to those unable to pay.

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. ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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