What the Hell Was That? – Patch Adams (1998)

Robin Williams was a rare talent in our lives.  A master comedian and a genius at improvisation, he also managed to carve out a niche as a well respected actor in both comedy and drama.  Though he could be completely bombastic and off-the-wall, he still had the ability to reign himself in and give a touching subtle performance once in a while; something that indeed helped him win an Oscar for his work in Good Will Hunting (1997).  But while he proved himself time and again to be a master at so many different things, it unfortunately made it difficult to find the right kinds of roles for him.  Oh sure, he had plenty of great films come his way, and many of those movies were no doubt improved by his presence.  But, when you become an extremely popular actor in the public’s eye, Hollywood might over time begin to believe they can harness that popularity and work to control it.  That’s why at certain parts of his career, Robin was finding himself acting in roles that didn’t use his talents effectively.  These were movies that more or less began to follow a formula; one’s that thought they knew what a Robin Williams’ picture was all about, but in actuality had no clue.  These kinds of pictures tended to play off both sides of his persona on screen, the affable clown who works a mile a minute, as well as the warm-hearted every man who stood up for the right things and gave hope to the helpless.  While Robin could excel at both, these two sides often would feel out of place next to each other, and it made some of his films feel particularly disjointed.  And oftentimes, you could see Robin really struggling to define himself as an actor, but sadly was being saddled with movies that Hollywood thought were right for him.  He became a performer restrained by his own successful identity, and that led to some rather disastrous films.

This particularly came to a head in the mid to late 90’s, when Robin’s film career was hitting a repetitive point.  In the earlier part of the decade, Williams had two monster hits with his work as the Genie in Aladdin (1992) and as a cross-dressing nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but soon after, his film output got a lot shakier.  It became clear over time that Hollywood saw Robin as a finely tuned machine that could bring the right kind of magic to any story, but that was not really the case at all.  Robin Williams, like any other actor, wanted to tackle something challenging, giving him the opportunity to surprise his audience, and if you’ve ever seen Robin perform in front of a crowd, you’ll definitely see that desire within him to be unpredictable.  Restraining him to a formula is not the greatest use of his talent, and that’s something that’s clear in his output from the 90’s.  Some movies of this period did turn out well (1995’s Jumanji and 1996’s The Birdcage), but there were plenty that didn’t (1996’s Jack, 1997’s Flubber, as well as Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar, both from 1999).  And when you look at the movies from this era that clearly didn’t work, you can see one thing that they all had in common; schmaltz.  It’s unfortunate to think that for a time that this was all that Hollywood thought that Robin Williams’ movies measured up to, this excessive sentimentality that’s only punctuated with his natural talent for improvisation.   Sure, some of his successes from year past had their sentimental moments, especially in his beloved turn in Dead Poets Society (1989), but that’s not what defined those movies in a nutshell either.  It’s a good thing that Good Will Hunting came along to break that cycle and leader to more serious and often darker roles later on for Robin, like One Hour Photo and Insomnia (both from 2002).  Unfortunately, before that would happen, Robin had to go through what is undoubtedly the worst movie of his entire career, and one that represented the worst of what Hollywood believed a Robin Williams movie could be; the travesty that’s known as Patch Adams (1998).

Patch Adams is the worst kind of schmaltzy movie that you could ever imagine, but that’s not the only thing that’s shameful about it.  It’s a movie that also uses it’s schmaltz in a manipulative way, believing that tugging at the heart strings will compensate for the narrative shortcomings.  But that’s not even the worst aspect of the feature.  No, what makes the movie so despising is the way that it was framed in order to be made more “marketable,” particularly towards favor during awards season.  Movies, particularly ones that are taken from real life stories, take liberties all the time in order to craft a film more towards appealing to the widest possible audience.  People are either excised or combined together and whole passages of a person’s life can also sometimes be completely ignored in order to focus on the most important parts of the narrative of the subject’s life.  But, sometimes, too many liberties are taken in order to broaden the drama of the story and that’s exactly what happened here.  The movie examines the story of Dr. Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, a groundbreaking American physician who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, which is a not-for-profit health care facility that specializes in Integrative Medicine.  A long time champion for free health care service not funded by insurance policies, Adams is also renowned for his colorful personality, often dressing up as a clown or wearing a red nose as a way of humorizing his patients as they go through their arduous treatments.  He’s a fascinating figure and continues to set a good example for the medical industry to this day.  Indeed, some of his techniques have since been adopted by hospitals across the world, and many new health care centers have improved the comfortable atmosphere of their facilities thanks to the example of his Institute.  When you look at his story, as a doctor who is also a clown, you can’t help but think of this as an ideal role for Robin Williams.  And yet, this was a match that was doomed to fail.

It wasn’t enough for Hollywood to just approach Dr. Adams story in a straightforward way; they had to make it their own.  First off, there is little of the real life of Patch Adams that makes it to the screen at all.  Robin Williams is nothing like the real Dr. Adams in any way, which can be overcome with a strong, well crafted performance.  But, nope, that’s not what the filmmakers wanted.  They just thought, hey here’s a doctor who cracks jokes all day to make his patients happy; all we need is Robin Williams to go wild and we’ve got our movie.  That seems to be the general result once you watch the movie.  Robin is just put in front of a camera and is told to improvise.  That’s why you see him cracking jokes with props on set like with medical supplies or a skeletal replica model.  Robin Williams can certainly improvise gold out of anything, but you know what you never see him actually do in the movie; actual medical healing.  The movie gives the false notion that all a doctor really needs is positive attitude and a sense of humor to be the best doctor in the world.  And the movie shamelessly injects this underdog aspect to the narrative, where it seems like Patch is breaking against tradition in attempting to empathize with his patients, thus breaking all the rules of his trade.  But, this was never the case at all, and it is merely a lazy attempt to find conflict in an otherwise straightforward story.  The biggest problem with the way that the movie portrays Patch is the fact that it just plays up the comedic aspects of his practice, and not the medical part.  No surprise, Dr. Adams was sharply critical of this movie, and in particular, with regards to the way that it minimized the work that he does.  He is a jokester and someone who believes in the healing power of laughter, but Dr. Adams also knows that humor and actual medicine need to go together, and that there’s a lot of hard work that goes into perfecting that balance; something that the movie definitely misses the mark on.  Robin Williams’ effortlessness with comedy is no substitute for conveying the actual hard work that Dr. Adam’s Institute goes through every single day.

In many ways, I feel that Robin Williams was more or less saddled with the burden of carrying a lazy production.  Not a single moment of this film goes by without it falling into one cliche or another.  You have the whimsical Marc Shaiman musical score, a cast of characters that are in no way realistic but are merely pawns meant to conform to the whims of the story, and it is entirely predictable in every beat of the plot.  Like I stated before, the movie is less informed by the actual work that Dr. Adams has done, and instead crafts a story all on it’s own.  And it’s one that we’ve all seen before a million times.  In particular, there was something about 90’s films that seemed to love the cliche of the court room finale.  Robin Williams was in quite a few of those if I remember, including some good ones like at the end of Mrs. Doubtfire.  The reason that you would see this cliche pop up so much was because it was an easy platform for the screenwriters to craft a monologue for their characters which basically gives them a chance to encapsulate the message of the movie in a nice, easily delivered package.  Because of it’s over-usage, this cliche just ended up turning into a clear sign of lazy writing, and sure enough that’s what you’ll find in Patch Adams.  The movie shows Patch defending his practices in front of a council that seeks to revoke his medical licence, and of course he delivers a long-winded defense of his practice, which just ends up falling into the realm of common sense that no real person would ever disagree with.  And yet, this movie thought it was profound enough to justify the conflict, which by the way is a complete Hollywood fabrication.  It didn’t help that the movie was made by two filmmakers well out of their element; director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk, who had risen up in the industry making Jim Carrey comedies like Ace Ventura (1994) and Liar, Liar (1997).  You can clearly see them trying way too hard to be profound, and it ultimately backfires.  The movie is too silly to be taken seriously, and too restrained to ever become hilarious.  It ends up becoming a failure on both measures as a result.

But the movie’s most egregious aspects come in the way that it tries turn real history into something that you could say Hollywood views as more “marketable.”  Marketability is a tricky thing to figure out for a movie, because it is never really a clear cut thing.  Some executives in Hollywood believe they have a pulse on what can make a movie more marketable, but I highly doubt that someone with a high paying salary and a luxurious office and lifestyle in sunny Southern California really has the best insight into what the actual viewing public wants in every movie.  Oftentimes, you just have to take a chance and hope that an unconventional movie might hit the mark, which it sometimes does.  But, most of the time, you get these compromised films like Patch Adams which clearly shows a lack in faith from studio execs in the actual story of the real person, and they instead decided to inject their own ideas to make the film “better” in their eyes.  This might not be a problem if it at least is done tastefully.  Unfortunately, Patch Adams has one of the most tasteless alterations that’s ever been done to improve the marketability of a film.  In the movie, we are introduced to a fellow physician that helps Patch start up his free clinic in it’s early days named Carin (played by Monica Potter).  She not only becomes a reliable ally for Patch, but also a potential love interest.  You also learn of her history of sexual abuse as a child which haunts her into adulthood.  Halfway through the movie, she ends up being murdered by a deranged patient she is treating, breaking Patch’s heart in the process.  This may seem heartbreaking, until you realize that Carin never existed.  Dr. Adams did in fact have a best friend who was murdered in real life, but that person was in fact a man, who had no romantic relationship at all with Patch, and was never abused as a child.  Learning this fact just makes the fabrication of the character of Carin sickening, because it shows the complete disregard that the filmmakers had to honoring the life of it’s subject.  They wanted their movie to have a conventional love story attached to it, and so they swapped genders with a real life person, gave them an unnecessary and false history of abuse, and killed that person off purely for the dramatic effect.  This aspect, more than anything else, is what makes Patch Adams such a hateable movie.

The reason I wanted to spotlight the movie Patch Adams in this series, and in particular wanted to address this sickening alteration that they injected into the story to add more drama, is because it reveals a larger problem in Hollywood with the way they try too hard to make their films appealing to too wide an audience.  Now sure, movies are expensive and you need to reach as big of audience as you can.  But that should be the marketing team’s job, not the filmmakers.  The people in charge of making the movie should be working towards making the movie the best that it can be, and that should not include any worries about how can we make this scene play more successfully in the Heartland.  This is unfortunately something that you see too much these days as studios try to alter their movies in the middle of their productions, because they feel that the movies are not good enough to stand on their own merits.  So many movies nowadays are becoming susceptible to re-shoots and alterations in post, as a means of changing what was there before into something that is better equipped to reach all flavors of audiences.  You can definitely see this happening with the movies coming from DC Comics, as Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017) both felt like they suffered from very confused productions that had no idea which direction they were heading towards.  The changing of a movie to become more marketable can even happen as early as pre-production, where the studios make a filmmaker compromise their visions in order to meet the demands of the executives.  This played out recently with the upcoming movie All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott.  In this telling of the kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s grandson, Scott wanted his first choice of Christopher Plummer to play the crucial part of the stingy tycoon.  But, the studio forced him to cast Kevin Spacey instead because he was viewed as a bigger name, thus we saw him assume the role under some really bad old age makeup.  With the scandal that erupted around Spacey earlier this year, the studio made the unprecedented decision to erase their “ideal” actor from a near finished movie and Scott was able to do last minute re-shoots with the actor he wanted in the first place.  It goes to show that not every studio makes the right choices in how to make a movie more appealing, and that sometimes it’s better to trust something to stand on it’s own.  Patch Adams represents those bad choices to the very extreme.

The failure of Patch Adams as a movie basically distills down to the fact that you can’t force a movie into being based on thinking you know what the audience wants.  Robin Williams can make anything funny, but not when it’s in service of taking it’s subject seriously.  You can believe that a character’s tortured history makes for compelling drama, but not when it’s tagged onto a real tragedy that disrespects the memory of the actual person, making their existence not even matter.  To add further insult, the real Dr. Adams believed that the movie did nothing but just exploit his name and personal history, and did nothing to further his message of compassionate care-giving and alternative medicine.  Upon release of the film, Adams slammed the movie and Robin’s portrayal of him, saying very bluntly, “He made $21 million for four months pretending to be me, in a very simplistic version, and did not give $10 to my free hospital.”  Adams later clarified that he didn’t dislike Robin Williams at all, and did not fault him for the film; his anger was more directed at how the studio just exploited his story for their own gain and not to help further any cause.  He is right to be dissatisfied with the movie, because all it does is just use Dr. Adams as a premise rather than a person.  Robin Williams unfortunately was the right man at the time to portray a funny doctor, but the movie wrongly seems to believe that this is all that matters.  Adams’ career is defined by so many other things; his ingenuity, his activism, his personality, all of which the movie doesn’t seem to care about.  And what’s worse, it takes certain aspects of Adams’ life, like the death of his friend, and adds unnecessary dramatic touches to it, which in the end is highly disrespectful.  This movie only appeals to the easily manipulated, who eat up schmaltz like it’s candy.  Even Robin Williams grew tired of this stuff, and tried to branch out, but sadly never got to shrug off completely before his untimely death in 2014.  More than anything, Patch Adams is a horrible cinematic travesty because of all the things it wastes; the fascinating story of a trailblazer in the science of medicine, the unparalleled acting abilities of Robin Williams, and the fact that it could have used this movie to affect change for good, rather than fill the wallets of it’s greedy backers with near certain and safe box office returns.

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