Universal // 1998 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // October 18th, 2007
Laughter is not a cure but it is a pleasant distraction on the road to the inevitable.
If you're hoping for a Robin Williams knee-slapper, you might need to look elsewhere because Patch Adams, while worthy of chuckles, has far too many aspirations to truly connect in an outright rib-tickling way. It's not a bad film but, if you've seen even a handful of modern-day dramedies, you'll see this one conforms to the template all too well. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is clearly up to you. Since this one has now been released in the HD DVD format, it becomes doubly vexing to decide whether it's worth a high-def dip, double or otherwise.
Suicidal Hunter Adams (Robin Williams, Man of the Year) has finally found purpose to his life when his voluntary internment into a mental institution revels his gift for reaching out and connecting with those in need, ultimately gaining the nickname of "Patch." He sets about to become a doctor, enrolling in a medical university where his new-found enthusiasm is curbed by the stoic and stodgy dictums issued by the apathetic Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton, 24). Seemingly, the Dean's dour pronouncements have soured the soul of hyper-competitive roommate Mitch Roman (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) and the pretty yet frigid Carine (Monica Potter, Saw). Only the gangly Truman (Daniel London, Rent) seems intrigued by Adams's assertions that emotional connection is what patients will respond to most, not the sterilized and clinical aloofness Dean Wolcott demands.
Throwing caution to the wind, as well as hospital and student-doctor regulations, Patch sets about to reach the infirm through humor, silliness, and genuine compassion. This aggravates the Dean as well as some of Patch's classmates -- he's somehow maintaining top scores among his student peers -- such that they seek to undermine and oust the unconventional would-be physician. But, for Patch, it's only the bare beginnings of a quest to serve others in need while withstanding the efforts of Dean Wolcott to have the "excessively happy" undergrad removed from the university.
Some films seem to unwittingly telegraph a message of "stop me if you've already heard this one." While composer Marc Shaiman's pensive piano and straining violin arrangements are certainly beautiful, the signal an immediate air of trite familiarity that indicate this will be "one of those films." Yes, you'll know from the opening credits that this will be a soundtrack played on the heartstrings of its audience and so the film, unapologetically, will proceed to alternately warm your heart and tug at your tear ducts. Unfortunately, if you can see this as the path that will be taken, you will ultimately sit by and watch, unaffected, by the entire affair.
But it's a feel-good movie that has ill children and lost souls and a man who has stepped back from the precipice of despair to lend his special skills toward lightening the burden of all he touches, right? Well, yes, it is that, but it's also so very routine in its execution that it only comes off as a mildly entertaining Bravo Network production. There's absolutely no denying that Robin Williams is excellent in this film, just to be clear. He's so well-suited to veer from the wildly inane to the severely introspective and it's always a joy to seem him flex his dramatic range. Simply put, he's the sole redeeming element in this otherwise blatant plea for a tear shed and a spontaneous "awww." That said, it's the narrative, one based upon the exploits of the real-life Patch Adams, that instantly gives us no hope of ever rising above a level of maudlin melodrama. The events are relayed in such "typical" manner that we know everything that will likely happen long before the film can reach the events we anticipated long before. ("Yep, I knew that was going to happen.") This is a shame, really, because there is an interesting story to tell here, knowing it would be practically foolish to take issue with what the real Mr. Adams has achieved through his unique style and unflagging dedication. Yet the compressed trail of events and composited characters (as admitted by Director Tom Shadyac, Evan Almighty) gives this the feel of a vapid daytime drama. Most aggravating is the one-dimensional villainy of Dean Wolcott. He is here simply for purposes of being hissed at and, without any indications of his motivations, he's simply a cardboard cutout who becomes indispensable upon first introduction.
All right, so maybe it's not the best show on the circuit, but how does it stand up on HD DVD? Strangely enough, this patient appears to have been terminal at the outset since the VC-1 encoded transfer here barely qualifies as "high definition." The source material is certainly clean and virtually blemish-free, and yet the detail levels are clearly mismanaged. At one point late in the show, I forgot I was watching an HD DVD. No, it's not that I though I was looking out a window upon real life but, rather, that I was watching a standard-def transfer that was immune even to upscaling. The picture was generally soft with only occasional hints of enhanced detail. The colors ran a bit hot, most faces looking pinkish as if flush with fever. Contrast levels were generally good but there were times when they would visibly waver. The audio, offered in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (as well as an alternate Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track), was similarly muted and constrained. Surround effects only infrequently offered a sense of ambience, the dialogue-driven affair largely holding anchored to the front channels. Sadly, the many '60s and '70s pop tunes that dotted the film's score seemed muddy and almost lifeless.
OK, so what about the extras? There are plenty of those here and they actually proved to be the best part of the entire experience. Director Shadyac starts us off with his undeniably energetic audio commentary, relaying many insights and anecdotes from the making of the picture. This is a good listen, really, that makes the film a bit more enjoyable the second time around. There's a 17-minute featurette, "The Medicinal Value of Laughter," that largely serves to promote the feature film but also includes interview clips with the real Patch Adams. The funniest bits on the entire disc are to be found in the all-too-brief gag reel where Williams cuts up, as you'd expect, but also is smitten with uncontrollable fits of giggles. Ten minutes of deleted scenes show many segments in extended form but also some very interesting backstory and subplot elements that are worthy of a look. The bonus goodies wrap up with a theatrical trailer.
Honestly, it's difficult to present such a non-complimentary analysis of a warm-hearted film. This is especially difficult given this is based on the amazing altruism of one man who certainly put real people ahead of routine procedure in the often callous health care industry. There is some goodness that ekes out of the edges of Patch Adams, but it's no less maddening to witness a great story that has been needlessly stunted by a lazy narrative structure and style.
In the final analysis, Patch Adams has enough entertainment-based medicine to settle an uneasy tummy but don't expect that it will cure the deeper escapist needs you might have. Yes, it feels good, to a degree, although it's "ordinary" approach keeps it from truly revealing and imparting the greatest medicine it clearly could have delivered.
It pains this court to find Patch Adams guilty as charged. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurette: "The Medicinal Value of Laughter"
* Gag Reel
* Theatrical Trailer