Give a father no options and you leave him no choice.
There are eight million heart-tugging stories in Naked Health Care City. This is not one of them.
Facts of the Case
John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington, Training Day) is suffering through a rough patch of luck. He's been cut back to 20 hours a week at the factory where he works with his best friend Jimmy (Cassavetes repertory regular David Thornton). The car his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise, Beloved) drives to her minimum-wage cashier job has just been repossessed—"Try paying your bills!" snarls the sensitive and sympathetic tow truck driver as he hauls the car away. John is "overqualified" for the second job he interviews for. The family's financial future looks so bleak John's nine-year-old son Mikey (Daniel E. Smith) offers his dad the $46 in his piggy bank, if it will help.
This being early in a Hollywood film, when things seem as though they've hit rock bottom, the tragedy has merely begun. John and Denise watch in shock from the bleachers as Mikey collapses on the infield in the middle of a Little League baseball game. The Archibalds rush their only child to the emergency room, where chief of cardiology Dr. Turner (James Woods, revisiting the ethically challenged surgeon archetype he played to oily perfection in Any Given Sunday) and hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche, apparently still bitter about the whole Ellen thing) blindside them with a ghostly trio of additional horrors: Mikey will die from a congenital heart defect unless he undergoes a quarter-million-dollar transplant; the Archibalds's health insurance, with a maximum payout of $25,000, won't cover the procedure, and the hospital won't even list Mikey as a potential organ recipient without a guarantee of payment; the hospital will kick little Mikey to the curb like last week's leftover oatmeal if John and Denise can't scrape together 75 grand as a deposit.
The Archibalds try every avenue at their disposal, but run into brick walls at each turn. Because they are both employed, John and Denise can't qualify for many social aid programs. They sell every household possession they can live without, but they don't own much. They take up a collection at church, but their friends are living hand to mouth as they are. John and Jimmy even plead with the blow-dried anchorman at a local TV station to air a special report on Mikey.
With the family still light-years short of the required down payment, the hospital decides to send Mikey home. "Do something!" Denise orders John from the waiting room pay phone. And he does: he hijacks Dr. Turner and the hospital's emergency room at gunpoint, much to the chagrin of the patients and staff, including a slick suburban mack-daddy-wannabe (Shawn Hatosy, The Faculty), whose Barbie-doll girlfriend's broken arm may or may not have resulted from a Mercedes crack-up; a fast-talking jokester (Eddie Griffin, Undercover Brother) with a mangled hand; a expectant couple (Troy Beyer and Troy Winbush, and don't you just bet that was confusing on the set?) awaiting the imminent arrival of their baby; a mother (Martha Chaves) with a sick infant; a shy security guard (Ethan Suplee, Remember the Titans); and three members of the hospital staff (including Dina Waters from HBO's Six Feet Under).
Outside the hospital, the veteran hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall—isn't this the same talky cop he played in Falling Down?) and the media-darling police chief (Ray Liotta, making us wonder whether that brain-eating scene in Hannibal was more authentic than first supposed) bicker about how to resolve the situation. Will they try to reason with the distraught father who identifies himself as "John Q"? Will they maneuver him into position for a sharpshooter to take him out? Will the pregnant woman have her baby? Will the audience endure endless pseudointellectual debate about the state of health care in America? What was up with that nasty truck-on-automobile collision back in the opening scene? And what about…Naomi? Um, I mean…Mikey?
Director Nick Cassavetes clearly has something to say here. Some of his frustrations with the health care system are drawn from his real-life experiences with his daughter Sasha, who has a congenital heart defect. Unfortunately, the road to cinematic perdition is often paved with good intentions hamstrung by inept directing and shanghaied by a Lifetime-movie-of-the-week script. And that road is well traveled, if not traveled well, in John Q. Even the reigning Best Actor Oscar-winner and a solid supporting cast can't salvage this morass of soppy sentiment coupled with bizarre improbability.
It's too bad, because they really do try. Denzel Washington is the rare superstar of his generation who has avoided degenerating into either a clown or an action figure. He's played both funny and heroic roles, but he transforms them with his unassailable humanity. He's not been afraid to accept the challenge of portraying men whose character may be questionable (The Hurricane, He's Got Game) or downright amoral (Training Day). But Washington's in for tough sledding here: you want to root for this desperate, loving father—how could you not?—until the screenplay turns him into a gun-waving vigilante terrorist. (And let's make no mistake about it: a man who takes innocent people by force and holds them against their will at gunpoint until his demands are met is a terrorist, however well-meaning and sympathetic he may be.) Denzel does brilliantly what perhaps only he could do with this material—he keeps us on John Q's side when a lesser actor could well have veered off into Rambo territory. But it's not enough.
Exceptional actors such as Woods and Duvall, and lesser talents like Heche and the scenery-gnawing Liotta, swim upstream against a perfunctory script that requires characters not previously established as schizophrenic to undergo 180-degree U-turns of motivation at the drop of a surgical glove. (Liotta, in particular, should 86 the Armani suit who signed him up to play the ridiculous caricature he's saddled with here.) The rest of the supporting thespians contribute satisfactory work—Elise is suitably distraught and maternal as John Q's wife, Eddie Griffin doesn't overplay his few lines (he correctly identifies the broken-winged bimbo's ostensibly caring beau as a member of "the Slap-a-ho tribe"), and Larissa Laskin and Kevin Connolly give earnest turns in small roles as the "good guys" on the hospital crew. The exception is Paul Johansson, who's flat and cartoonish as the TV reporter hot for an exclusive. (When are film directors going to wake up to the fact that actors don't read lines the way news anchors do, and are never convincing in these roles? Find a hungry young future Dan Rather at some UHF outlet in West Undershirt, Nebraska, and hire him instead.)
If only these people had been given steak instead of hamburger to work with. Blame rookie feature screenwriter James Kearns, whose previous credits scripting wretched TV programs like Jake and the Fatman and Highway to Heaven provide some advance warning about what you'll be subjected to in John Q. Director Cassavetes wouldn't know subtle if it shot him through the heart, as witnessed by the orchestral "Ave Maria" swelling on the soundtrack as we watch the young woman in the opening scene get T-boned by a steamrolling semi. Every plot point gets hammered home as though we hapless filmgoers just won't get the message unless Cassavetes staples it to our foreheads. We get it, Nick—maybe we even empathize. We're just looking for a world where characters behave like real people and not like slaves of an idiotic, paint-by-numbers plot.
John Q comes to DVD as the latest installment in New Line's infinifilm series. The anamorphic transfer of the main feature is attractive and clean, but glaring instances of edge enhancement crop up throughout the film, particularly in brightly lit or backlighted scenes. Otherwise, the print itself appears to be without any noticeable defects. The use of color throughout the film is muted—appropriate to the overall tone of the story—and reproduces nicely on disc. To my eye, the image appears somewhat gauzy in spots, but for the most part details are distinct and realistic.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, like the visual presentation, seems muted but pleasant. I expected more oomph during the vehicular impact that opens the movie, but this really isn't a film that calls for a great deal of amplitude. Both the score and the dialogue tracks represent well; neither fights with the other for attention. Although you won't find much spectacle in this soundtrack, the soundstage is remarkably open for this kind of dialogue-driven picture, and in the busier scenes there's enough bustle in the background to afford an immersive feel. A DTS option is also provided, as is a 2.0 stereo mix.
An audio commentary features director Cassavetes, screenwriter Kearns, producer Mark Burg, cinematographer Rogier Stoffers, and co-star Kimberly Elise. Though it's difficult to determine exactly how the track was edited together, it sounds as though most of the participants were together in the studio for the recording—it's also possible that two sessions were intercut, with Cassavetes and Kearns participating in both. Despite the number of people involved in this commentary, lengthy blank passages crop up rather frequently, often at points in the film when commentary would be welcome—almost as though the filmmakers were saying, "Hey, here's a really cool part; let's just watch." I also found this track a mite shallow and self-congratulatory for my taste. On the whole, it's not all that enlightening.
The text-based "Fact Track" offers an alternative style of commentary, this time in subtitle form. Most of these "facts" are more along the lines of "Pop-Up Video"-type trivia items, but if you're an aficionado of arcane ephemera, you'll enjoy flipping through this at least once.
As is typical of the infinifilm imprint, the supplemental content on this DVD can be accessed by either of two navigation paths. There's a standard menu option that facilitates individual selection of the supplements. The alternate infinifilm method superimposes one or two menu choices at each chapter stop during the feature presentation, offering the viewer the option of stopping to check out a featurette or static content item before continuing with the film. The main problem with this idea, as clever and interactive as it seems, is that the choices served up at a given juncture aren't often related to the part of the film you're watching. In my view, this creates missed opportunities and makes for a jumbled experience. It also feels too much like watching a film on commercial television with station breaks inserted. I'd rather let the film stand on its own—or be accompanied by commentary—and review the additional items separately. Your tastes may differ. Whichever approach you prefer, the same range of bonus fare is available to you—it's just sliced up in different ways.
"Behind the Scenes" is typical of the familiar production featurette all DVD fans know and love. Or at least know. Seventeen minutes in length, this short combines interviews with the film's principal talents with on-the-set footage. As might be expected from the subject matter of the film, many of the interview segments deal with the health care issues raised in the movie.
Twice as long and twice as involving is "Fighting for Care," a documentary shot at UCLA Medical Center's transplant facility. We hear from doctors, hospital administrators, and patients about the difficulties that attend the transplant process, especially those related to insurance companies in general and health maintenance organizations in particular. Everyone agrees the system is a logistical nightmare and a crushing financial hardship both for the patients and the health care providers. Several of the medical personnel agree that the best solution to the problem would be the one John Q puts forward in the film—"Free health care for everybody"—and most concur that it would be great if the government took on this project. While the information presented in this documentary is both gripping and thought-provoking, it is entirely one-sided. No one from the insurance industry or the government is interviewed. Also, no one who is interviewed proposes a practical solution to the question: where would free health care come from? Would doctors and hospital staffs work for free? Would taxpayers leap at the opportunity to fund such a system by increased taxes? Would insurance companies forego their profits, or disappear altogether, to accomplish the greater good? And, more specifically to the transplant issue, a national health care system could not change the essential realities of transplantation medicine—too many people who need transplanted organs, not enough people giving 'em up when they're done using 'em, too few doctors and medical facilities who can do the work, and too many necessary drugs that cost in the aggregate almost as much as this movie.
Segments from both of the above features make up the majority of the infinifilm inserts. Also included are six scenes deleted from the final edit, which can be viewed either with or without audio commentary by Nick Cassavetes. Most of these are extended or alternate versions of material that remained in the film, or extra exposition that we were better off without. Most interesting is a scene that was filmed at the behest of the studio, in which the abusive slimeball played by Shawn Hatosy attempts to apologize to and make up with his battered girlfriend. That anyone actually believed this sequence could work under any circumstances makes one lose faith in humanity.
A text-based press kit with filmmaker biographies and a theatrical trailer round out the extras. For the DVD-ROM equipped, there's an interesting feature that allows the viewer to read the script as the film screens alongside.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've worked for a non-profit organization in the health care industry for ten years. I'm also the husband and son-in-law of cancer survivors. Therefore, I know whereof I speak when I say nothing is simple when it comes to the subject of health care. The issue is typical of 21st-century America—we want the moon, but we want it free (or at the very least dirt-cheap); we want easy, inexpensive solutions where there genuinely are none. Health care is like that elephant being examined by six blind men: whether you perceive it as a snake, a rope, a wall, a fan, a spear, or a tree, you'll be partly right in some ways and partly wrong in others. Those who call for a socialized, government-run system don't want to accept such a system's inevitable limitations (and quickly forget how little success the Feds have had in running anything—ask the folks at Amtrak). Those who mourn for the millions who are uninsured don't want the cost of those people's hospital bills to come out of their pockets. No one in the health care business—providers or insurers—wants to make less money. No one on the receiving end wants less than the most advanced medical, technological, and pharmaceutical services.
The true bottom line, as Robert Heinlein once observed, is that There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Somebody has to pay for everything, because everything costs. Is it fair? No. Is it good? No. Does it stink like potato salad after a hot day's picnic? Absolutely. Are we going to solve it in 118 minutes of essentially mindless entertainment? Not on your sweet life, bucko.
Welcome to the cold harsh daylight of the real world. If you think you can fix health care in America, run for President. But please, keep your handguns out of the E.R. The good people working and seeking care there have problems enough.
As I indicated earlier, there are excellent stories to be told with this material. It would take, however, a more competent screenwriter and a less self-serving director to tell them. It's mentioned in the supplementary materials that James Kearns' script circled Hollywood for almost a decade before the rights sold. I presume that most, if not all, of the studio types who passed on this must have read it. John Q's son may have needed a heart transplant, but his movie needed a brain transplant. I guess New Line's HMO didn't cover that procedure.
John Q is convicted of sensationalism, sermonizing, and mindless character conduct in the first degree. Nick Cassavetes is sentenced to a back-to-back screening of Dog Day Afternoon and The Negotiator to see the hostage thing done, and done better. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Audio Commentary with Director Nick Cassavetes, Producer Mark Burg, Screenwriter James Kearns, Director of Photography Rogier Stoffers, and Actress Kimberly Elise
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