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Movie Review: 'Patch Adams'

Robin Williams lets loose as any, but often smug, doctor in 'Patch Adams'

Friday, December 25, 1998

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Patch Adams" must have been discovered in a vault somewhere, a forgotten relic of the early 1970s, reissued to take advantage of our '90s enmity toward HMOs and the kind of impersonal medicine practiced by doctors who thought they were God until insurance profiteers showed them who is really boss.

  Robin Williams plays a doctor who prescribes laughter in "patch Adams." Monica Potter portrays a med student. (Melinda Sue Gordon)

Both in look and in attitude, the movie proves emblematic of the time period in which it is set. The title character is an inmate who takes over the asylum, a former mental patient who attends medical school and, like all good college students of the era, challenges the establishment - in this case, by daring to treat patients like human beings. He believes laughter is the best medicine, which gives him leave to act like a clown in pursuit of his ideals. Isn't that what the Yippies were all about?

The surest sign of the film's mindset is that, in denouncing the arrogance of the establishment, Patch nearly drowns you in his own smugness. More than once, I wanted someone to give this guy his comeuppance - or, at least, let him suffer from the consequences of his actions instead of leaving other people to pick up the pieces.

That would have made for a more honestly dramatic movie, although certainly less of a crowd pleaser. Robin Williams plays Patch, which is how we know the movie is of contemporary origin, and it allows him to exhibit both the uninhibited zaniness that made us love him in the first place and the more recent "serious actor" persona that won him an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting." Audiences will, I suspect, lap it up.

    'Patch Adams'

Rating: PG-13 for some strong language and crude humor

Players: Robin Williams, Monica Potter, Daniel London

Director: Tom Shadyac

Critics Call: 2 1/2 stars


The movie is never more in tune with modern sensibilities than in the early med-school scenes. Patch sits in a amphitheater-style classroom with dozens of other students as Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton) lectures them on the dangers of being too close to your patient. He doesn't want a friend, Walcott says, he wants a doctor - and we're going to bleach as much humanity out of you as possible. We all know how well the Walcotts of the world succeeded.

But it is a measure of how presumptuous Patch becomes that I found myself sympathizing just a little with the dean at several points during the movie. In the film's defense, it is based on a true story, and we are told the real Patch Adams actually was criticized by his med-school teachers for "excessive happiness."

Still, a factual basis doesn't mean we have to swallow the cliched finalex in which Patch defends himself before a trial board with the kind of impassioned, only-in-a-movie oration that could turn Trent Lott into a Clinton supporter. And do you mean to tell me Patch's elaborate campus sight gag for a visiting group of gynecologists wouldn't have been noticed by Walcott in time to stop it?

But sight gags are director Tom Shadyac's specialty. He worked with Jim Carrey on "Liar Liar" and the first "Ace Ventura" movie, and with Eddie Murphy on "The Nutty Professor." The man makes funny movies with funny people and, if Patch's theory is correct, Williams' clowning will have you leaving the theater in the best of health.

Screenwriter Steve Oedekerk also packs in a lot of dramatic scenes and Shadyac pulls them off reasonably well, too, albeit seldom straying from formula. His cast has a lot to do with that - not just Williams but also Monica Potter as Carin, the single-minded med student whom Patch finally wins over to the cause.

Pittsburgh native Daniel London scores as Truman, a somewhat geeky guy who becomes Patch's acolyte and also his balance wheel. And Philip Seymour Hoffman as Patch's irritable roommate makes the most interesting journey, from resentment to grudging recognition of Patch's viewpoint.

The production designers deserve credit for achieving an early '70s look to the settings and costumes. As for the attitude, one of the producers is Mike Farrell, better known as that goody-goody B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV series "M*A*S*H." No wonder "Patch Adams" seems to have come to us through a time warp.

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