Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dead On Arrival

By Debbie Gilbert and Jim Hanas

JANUARY 11, 1999:  The message we’re supposed to glean from Patch Adams is that laughter is the best medicine. Too bad the laughs come from characters onscreen, not from the audience. This is a feel-good movie that will make you sick – queasy with the realization that you’ve wasted your money on this debacle.

Robin Williams stars as Hunter “Patch” Adams, a real-life doctor who believes that clowning around with patients helps them heal. The story of Adams’ career is indeed interesting and could have made one hell of a documentary. Instead, director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk – a team best known for the Ace Ventura movies – chose to give this worthwhile tale the standard Hollywood treatment.

Shadyac has said he wanted to do this film only if he could get Robin Williams to play Patch. Unfortunately, he did. Williams alternates between his compassionate/inspirational mode (i.e., Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) and his wild-and-crazy Mork persona, and in either case it’s familiar shtick. His idiosyncrasies are by now so ingrained and instantly recognizable that he’s incapable of playing anyone but himself.

It’s hard to imagine the real Patch Adams could be pleased with how he’s portrayed here. In the film, he’s a saint, devoting his life to “helping people” and battling the mean old medical establishment, which apparently exists to hurt people. It seems that until Patch came along with his revolutionary ideas, no physician in America had ever treated his patients as human beings. Oh, and by the way, Patch is a genius, too – he scores the highest grades in medical school without ever having to study, so he has plenty of leisure time to hang around hospital wards wearing an enema bulb on his nose and a bedpan on his head, curing patients with the force of his comedic brilliance. Stop, my sides are splitting!

Like many of the movies released during this holiday season, Patch Adams is calculatingly packaged to manipulate the audience, substituting sentimentality for genuine emotion and cranking up treacly music to generate drama where none exists. The platitude-laden script reaches its nadir at Williams’ big Oscar-moment speech, where he actually uses the phrase “as God is my witness.” This is far more hilarious than any of his zany antics.

The film might have been redeemed by a strong supporting cast, but all of the characters are one-dimensional, as if to prevent them from stealing any of the glory from Williams. As Patch’s love interest, Monica Potter looks remarkably like a young Julia Roberts, but she seems lifeless, as if her vivacity has been surgically removed.

The most insulting aspect of this movie, though, is its slapdash construction. It’s littered with anachronisms and egregious continuity bloopers. The story is set in the early 1970s, yet people are using things that simply weren’t around back then, like modern-style telephone answering machines and HMO insurance cards. Throughout his four years of medical school, Patch entertains the same group of young cancer patients, who seem frozen in time – they never age, get better, or die. There’s even a scene in which Williams is standing on a cliff and a dark object that can only be a boom microphone is momentarily visible above his head. Where were the editors?

Patch Adams is a well-intentioned film that turned out horribly wrong. Equal parts blame should be assigned to the writer, director, and Williams. The studio, Universal Pictures, also deserves culpability, but the decent box-office returns may have misled the suits into thinking that their product is actually good. Don’t encourage them further. Films like this are a plague on the movie industry – let’s keep the virus from spreading. – Debbie Gilbert

The Faculty

Imagine if the cast of The Breakfast Club had really had something to complain about beyond the suffocating pressures of the high-school caste system – something like, say, the fact that their teachers are having extraterrestrial prawns coughed into their ears and are thereby becoming sinister alien automatons. If you can imagine this vividly enough, you don’t have to go see The Faculty. You are excused.

Written by Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and directed by Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado), The Faculty would seem to promise a synergistically extra-special take on the teen-thriller genre. Instead, it’s simply an unremarkable slice of the same. Rodriguez’s touch is so indetectable, I didn’t even realize he was the director until the credits rolled.

Here’s the story: Coach Willis seems different somehow, mellower but at the same time more menacing. Something’s up and it seems to be spreading. This leads to the formation of a cross-clique wonder team of students who have somehow managed to avoid assimilation. There’s the cheerleader and the jock and the geek and the outcast and the rebel and – in the only real break from The Breakfast Club template – the girl from Atlanta. Under the tentative leadership of the geek (Elijah Wood) they figure it all out and figure out how to fix it with the help of some low-rent drug the rebel (Josh Hartnett) has cooked up in his rec room.

The special effects are used sparingly and are pleasantly unhokey, the terror is something less than total, there’s plenty of occasions to wonder who the head alien is, and it all ends, thankfully, in nudity. Not that this whole killing-the-head-alien-makes-everyone-normal thing doesn’t come off like a confusion of tropes. Aliens aren’t vampires, after all, and you’ve either got a parasitic prawn in your head or you don’t. But anyway … .

The important thing is that the whole ordeal manages to spark a couple of totally unlikely cross-clique relationships, one of which culminates Breakfast Club-style out by the football field, reminding us that – absent invasive alien presences – people really just are people. Dancin’, you know it, baby. – Jim Hanass

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