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'John Q.'

Washington supports desperate movie

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Remember how audiences erupted spontaneously during the movie "As Good As It Gets" when Helen Hunt broke into a profanity-laced rant against the HMO that wouldn't pay for her son's asthma treatment?

'John Q.'

RATING: PG-13 for violence, language and intense thematic elements.

STARRING: Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, James Woods.

DIRECTOR: Nick Cassavetes.

WEB SITE: www.iamjohnq.com



"John Q." tries to draw from that same wellspring of consumer frustration, but the movie just doesn't hold water. It takes too many irrelevant and melodramatic side trips, changing from family drama to implausible action film to '70s disaster film to full-blown media circus to agitprop rabble-rouser.

The movie is best when it focuses on the basics: Denzel Washington as John Q. Archibald, an underemployed factory worker in a financial squeeze who has an impatient wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), and a spirited son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith). When the boy collapses during a baseball game, it turns out he has an enlarged heart.

Mike will die without a transplant, but, hey, John's got insurance, or so he thinks until he finds out there's a new carrier who downgraded his coverage when the factory cut his hours. The hospital administrator (Anne Heche), a woman who could run the ice concession in hell, suggests they take Mike home and make him comfortable. "People die all the time," she says later in the film.

John begs the head cardiologist (James Woods), to no avail. So the desperate dad pulls a gun, chains the doors of the emergency room and demands the operation that will save his son's life.

This is the point at which the movie starts having a seizure. John didn't think this through enough to realize that by commandeering the section of the hospital that gives the most urgent care, he is putting others at risk by initially denying care to people with potential life-threatening injuries. Isn't that his very complaint against the HMO and the hospital?

The movie stops dead to introduce his hostages, including the terminally annoying Mitch (Shawn Hatosy), who brought his girlfriend for treatment after beating her up. More than once, their discussions turn into a roundtable denunciation of nefarious HMO practices that foreshadows the outright campaigning for a national health-insurance system near the end of the movie.

Screenwriter James Kearns and director Nick Cassavetes continue beating their hobby horse with fists of ham when the police arrive. Hostage negotiator Robert Duvall is giving John time to cool down when the media-hound police chief arrives. He's played by Ray Liotta, who specializes in playing loudmouth dunderheads, so we know he's going to make things worse for no good reason.

And where there's a media-hound, there's sure to be media. The profusely coiffed TV news god calls the story "my white Bronco" and helps turn John Q. into a sympathetic figure.

It doesn't hurt to have Washington in the title role. Almost single-handedly, he keeps the movie from losing all credibility. His emotional scenes with his desperately ill son can bring a tear even to the eye of Heche's character, a woman who probably hasn't cried since the last stock-market crash. Woods at least signals the ambivalence of his character, a doctor who hasn't become quite so smug that he has lost all of his medical idealism.

Cassavetes' heart may be in the right place -- his daughter suffers from congenital heart disease and has been through the mill with doctors and insurance companies -- but his movie runs off at the mouth. The health-insurance dilemma in America is a serious problem that deserves a more serious treatment than the slapdash "John Q."

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