Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Cold Calculation

Underwhelming films offer emotional stimulation

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  The geniuses who come up with big movie-marketing concepts aren't satisfied just to play on some knee-jerk emotional response, like fear, laughter, or tears. No, to justify big-ticket video rentals or satellite dish sales, an event movie must repeatedly hit every funny bone, raw nerve, and soft spot in a viewer's body--as if we all had the attention spans of 5-year-olds with skinned knees. Two recent movies, Jack Frost and Patch Adams, are especially shameless--the former in a laughably obvious way, the latter more stealthily.

Was Jack Frost translated into a foreign language and then back into English just before shooting began? It has the shape and format of a heartwarming family comedy, only everything seems to be one notch off, as if somebody rewrote the script for The Mighty Ducks and accidentally replaced "hockey coach" with "snowman."

Michael Keaton plays the title character, a Colorado blues musician (ahhh, those Colorado blues) who never seems to have enough time for his wife (Kelly Preston) and son (Joseph Cross). On his way back from a Christmas gig in Aspen, Frost crashes a car belonging to his buddy (Mark Addy) and dies. One year later, his kid blows on a magic harmonica, and his dad comes back to life in the form of a snowman (who kind of looks like Michael Keaton, if you squint real hard and watch Mr. Mom instead). Pops spends quality time with sonny-boy, who learns to stop pouting and be a man. And, it bears repeating, his father's a snowman.

Yes, you heard me right. There are cultural artifacts in my possession that are so purely, eye-poppingly awful that they defy snide commentary. My favorite--just edging out a Leonard Nimoy album--is a promotional video for a "Christopher-Atkins-fights-a-baboon-gone-mad" B-picture called Shakma. I play it at parties, and guests marvel at something so perfectly ill-advised. Well, whenever the boy and the snowman in Jack Frost attempt to bond, the film reaches levels of absurdity that can only be described as Shakma-esque.

It's not just that the snowman looks stupid, although Lord God, does it ever: It looks like someone took a sack of flour and shaped it with a few well-placed pokes and karate chops. And it's not just that Keaton makes an unappealing live dad, let alone a snow dad--although between his ugly stubble, curdled sincerity, and unrelenting hipness, he acts more like a late-night TV bandleader. And it's certainly not just that the snowman doesn't get to do anything interesting, besides sled, play hockey, and throw snowballs--although I'm surprised that screenwriters Mark Steven Johnson and Steven Bloom and director Troy Miller couldn't work in ice sculpture and curling.

No, it's all these things, along with the smaller details that indicate that no one involved with this production had any thought besides "the snowman will save us." What makes Hollywood think that a bank teller and a struggling musician could afford a big house in a resort community? And how the heck does that snowman get around so adroitly, when he moves like a segmented worm? Of course, you can't blame snow for being all wet.

On the other hand, the soon-to-be-released Patch Adams has such professional production and familiar charm that its half-baked hokum is harder to suss out. It's there, though, and in many ways it's more egregious. Robin Williams stars as Hunter Adams, a suicidal mental patient who, while institutionalized, learns that he can forget about his troubles by helping others heal. He takes the nickname "Patch" and goes from the asylum to medical school, where his acuity for memorization and his passion for medicine rocket him to the top of his class.

Unfortunately, his disregard for medical protocol--mainly the requisite emotional detachment from patients, but also the coldly efficient bureaucracy--earns the ire of a crusty old dean (Bob Gunton). Nonetheless, Patch overcomes the establishment and founds a world-famous free clinic that operates without malpractice insurance and under the principle that laughter is the best medicine.

This is all based on a true story, the sort that prompts people to say, "If they made this into a movie, no one would believe it." Well they did, and I don't. A documentary about the real-life Patch Adams would be far more interesting. How does Adams maintain his ideals (and his practice) in a world of escalating medical costs? Isn't some bureaucracy necessary to operate even a nonprofit business? Rather than dealing with the reality of a man and his beliefs, director Tom (The Nutty Professor) Shadyac and screenwriter Steve (Ace Ventura) Oedenkerk shoehorn Patch's life into a clichd underdog-makes-good story, turning real people into movie characters. The only actor who transcends the material is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing a brilliant student so offended by Adams' attitude that his hands tremble when he talks about it.

Robin Williams has been seeking out these kinds of movies for over a decade now, movies that seem to espouse his belief that the more we are like children the better, and that responsible people ruin things for the free-spirited. He has certainly tapped into something--who would disagree that it's fun to have fun, or that babies should eat?--but his pop psychology may not travel well. In the 1970s, Alan Alda turned almost every episode of M*A*S*H* (as well as his movies) into a forum for his anti-atrocity, anti-chauvinist views. At the time it was exciting, but in retrospect, though M*A*S*H* itself holds up, Alda kinda looks like an asshole.

Will this be Williams' fate? Like I said, he's a star at the moment, and Patch Adams is certainly going to appeal to his fans. It's intended as a crowd-pleaser that taps into people's frustration with the cost and the apparent lack of compassion in the health-care industry. Audiences respond to films like this--they laugh, their values are affirmed--and when cranky critics pick the movie apart for being corny and unoriginal, we're usually greeted with that all-purpose rebuttal, "It's only a movie."

There is one moment in Patch Adams when something really surprising happens--something so dramatic that it almost convinces Adams to abandon his work and succumb to depression. But once I got over the initial shock (it took about 30 seconds), I was struck by how little I cared about what had happened. I knew that Patch would overcome his temporary setback, stick it to the powers-that-be, and triumph triumphantly. After all, it's only a movie.

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