First Time Watch: Patch Adams (1998)

By Christian DiMartino

Robin Williams was an enormous talent with a handful of cinematic bangers to his name. When we lost him in 2014, there was definitely a bit of heartbreak felt around the world. With this in mind though, it is also hard to deny that for all of his greatness and all of the great movies he was in, there was also a good share of duds. The worst to me, for a long time, was Jack, in which he played a 10 year old (directed by, shockingly, Francis Ford Coppola). There was also Barry Levinson’s Toys, which drove me mad with the love it had for itself.

Now, comes Patch Adams.

Critics annihilated it during its release, but people seem to mostly go for it, seeing as it has a 6.8 on IMDb. To a degree, sometimes critics get it wrong. An example that comes to mind is We’re the Millers. Critics didn’t warm up to it, but people went for it and the movie ended up becoming a pretty decent hit after a few weeks. A random thought, but it’s one that always comes to mind. So knowing that Patch Adams was for someone, I approached it with an open mind.

After seeing it, I gotta say: guys, really? This? This movie? Yeah yeah yeah, I know there’s the “but, Robin Williams!” defense, and it’s certainly a good one usually, but… this? A 6.8? This has got to be the most insufferable movie I have seen in some time. Do people, or sick people, watch this film to lift their spirits? If a doctor played this for me in a hospital, I’d be aiming for the nearest window. Or I’d take my bedpan and bash the television. Whichever one could end it quicker.

Man, did this film irk me, and make me feel icky. Patch Adams steps wrong in so many ways, it’s hard to decide just which flaw is the biggest. It’s at times so horrible, I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs. Good God.

Alright so, let’s get the plot out of the way. Williams plays the title role, one Hunter “Patch” Adams, who when we meet him is checking into an institution because he is suicidal. These opening scenes set the tone for the film, in that the squirming began pretty early. The other people in the psych ward are insane to the point where you know that it’s just being played this way for laughs. Except there’s no real punchline; the joke is that they’re mentally ill. Hysterical. Anyways, Adams realizes after spending time with these people that he wants to leave the institution and help people.

Cut to a few years later and he’s in medical school. There is so much I want to discuss here but… all of my thoughts must be collected. Patch is essentially the class clown, irking most of his peers because he doesn’t appear to be taking things seriously. These peers who are against him are made to seem like big meanies, but in no way are these people actually wrong. More on that later. Patch and a fellow student are observing others whenever they stumble into another movie. In one of the strangest turns of the movie, they end up at a meat packing convention. This sequence is so bizarre and random, one can’t help but wonder why it’s in the movie. Well…

While at the convention, he tries on a butcher’s coat, and realizes that he can pose as a medical student. So they sneak into a hospital and soon Patch comes to the realization that he can provide healing through the power of laughter or something. He also calls out the establishment for their rude disregard for their patients. He also battles against the establishment for knocking his methods and yada yada.

Okay, so, let me first start by saying that on paper this would be the ultimate Williams vehicle. Except not only is the material pretty terrible here, but he is also in the wrong movie. The film is based on a true story, and the real Patch Adams loathes this film, and with good reason. Williams’ character does a lot of whacky, quirky stuff, and yet that’s pretty much the only note he plays. This character elicits laughter from just about everyone around him, but it’s only because the movie told them to. This character also got under my skin.

In no way does he ever appear to be anything of actual use. He is the top of his class, but we never see him study. He devotes so much time to his shenanigans that it’s really hard to believe he’s accomplishing anything. We just see him being quote-on-quote “funny,” but the guy is more of a pain in the ass than anything. I’ll turn to the, “but, Robin Williams!” defense in saying that this is not his fault; he was simply doing what the screenplay told him to do. The trouble is that damned screenplay. It doesn’t really provide a good reason for this story to be told. The real Patch Adams was probably a pretty remarkable guy. The film’s Patch Adams comes off like a total nutbag. In no way would I ever want this guy near me. By the end of the movie, he even ends up charming those who were against him. My guess is, again, it’s because the movie told them to. The movie wants you to love this guy, but even in the hands of Williams, it’s hard to really find much enjoyment in him.

Oh, it doesn’t end there. This film is so shamefully manipulative. Not just in the way it wants you to feel emotion and tug the heart strings and love Patch. No no. Get a load of this character played by Monica Potter. Not the fault of Potter, but here is a character who plays only a select few notes. When we meet Carin, she is uptight. Then, she falls for Patch’s antics. Then she’s sad. Then she loves Patch. Then, she is murdered. Yes. Now, since this is a true story, this moment would truly be tragic, because Patch loved her and her death causes him to contemplate suicide again. But… hmm. She’s not a real person. They give her a brief background of molestation, just a bit of character development before she’s killed. But… she wasn’t a real person. Adams did have a friend who was murdered, but it was a guy. So this film came up with a fictional love interest for Patch to, once again, tug at the heartstrings. It is her only purpose in the movie. The only one. To love Patch, and to die. Shameful.

OH! Okay, and take another scene- the one that made me scream. Early in the movie, he breaks into a hospital room in the middle of the night to throw balloons or something at elderly people- real charmer. Of course though, since the movie is very much up Patch’s ass, the elderly people eat it up. Patch then starts asking these people about their final fantasies, and that old lady from Wedding Crashers says that she’s fantasized about being in a pool filled with noodles. Hmm, interesting. Interesting because, oh, I don’t know, this will probably come back into play, somehow, later on. Then, in the final act, a fellow colleague played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman (another character who hated Patch until the screenplay told him not to) asks Patch to help him with a patient who won’t eat her food. Patch says he has an idea. This, was when I started screaming, because WOULDN’T YOU KNOW, that weird noodle lady gets her pool full of f*%king noodles!

Oh, OH! Take ANOTHER scene in which Williams is about to jump off a cliff after his fictional and former abuse victim girlfriend dies. Earlier in the movie, during said fictional moment whenever she discussed her fictional molestation, she went on about turning into a butterfly or something. As Patch is about to jump (at the hope of ending the movie sooner, one could hope), A BUTTERFLY lands on a rock, reminding him of his fictional dead abuse victim girlfriend, and also reminding him of the joys of life.

Barf. Barf. Barf-o-rama.

The film builds to a conclusion that, again, is sickening. Williams gets to deliver a grand courtroom speech, and in the grand tradition of Carpe Diem and fans of a Williams character standing on desks to show support, a large group of sick children enter the courtroom and place red noses on their noses in support. Good God, as if this couldn’t get sappier. Everyone involved in this film had to have taken a syrup bath.

The film is directed by Tom Shadyac, who had great luck with Jim Carrey on movies like Ace Ventura and Liar Liar, and the film’s writer has written funny movies. The trouble is, those films weren’t about real people. In ways, neither is this one. Yet in trying to capture the medical teachings of Patch Adams, they have done nothing but turn him into a clown. He just doesn’t wear make up. Nor do I find clowns funny. Nor did I find Patch Adams funny. Nor did I find Patch Adams funny. It’s amazing that a film that’s supposed to make us feel better made me feel so sick. It’s also amazing that this has a 6.8 on IMDb. If you like this movie, good, I’m happy for you. Me personally though, I prefer my entertainment to be a little less disgustingly manipulative.

Grade: F

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