The medical establishment is roundly censured in Patch Adams, a movie irresponsible enough to propose that doctors should behave like Robin Williams. The title character is based on a real person, Hunter “Patch” Adams, M.D., an advocate of “humor therapy” and the author of a woolly-headed, self-promoting book called Gesundheit: Good Health Is a Laughing Matter. I have no idea what the real Dr. Adams is like, but his screen incarnation is grotesquely familiar, a compendium of Williams’s messiah/manchild roles from Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and, most distressingly, Jack.
Patch Adams opens as most Robin Williams movies should end, with its protagonist checking into a mental institution. He doesn’t stay long, though, his suicidal thoughts abating as soon as he’s alerted to the oddly cheering effects of his attention-hound antics. The logical next step is apparently medical school, where Patch’s blindingly ugly shirts single him out as a freethinking renegade. Bemoaning the drill-sergeant mentality of his teachers and the unhealthy emotional distance between doctors and patients, he’s soon breaking into hospital wards, spreading cheer to sick children and morose adults with slapstick routines that involve enema bulbs, bedpans, and IV stands.
Both the real Patch Adams and the Robin Williams version yammer on at length about the therapeutic qualities of humor; in the film at least, this theoretically sensible school of thought amounts to nothing more than a buffoonish, scarily maniacal bedside manner, which, far from being salubrious, is more likely to trigger relapses and lawsuits. Worse, the movie is intent on presenting its hero as a social visionary when his numerous epiphanies are notable for a surreal impracticality worthy of particularly out-of-it potheads. (Health care too expensive and bureaucratic? Make it free! On a ranch! In the woods!)
Its simpleminded mawkishness aside, Patch Adams also represents filmic storytelling at its most corrupt. Crude doesn’t begin to describe the characters. “Passion doesn’t make doctors. I make doctors!” the demonic dean duly thunders. To no avail, of course. Ever the twinkly-eyed altruist, Patch wins over one careerist colleague after another, most conspicuously an icy female classmate (Monica Potter) who’s eventually thawed out by Patch’s overwhelming virtuousness, and whose subsequent ill fortune occasions a rigged crisis of faith. Patch regains his composure in time for a climactic tantrum before a medical review board, after which the aforementioned sick children file in for a weepy encore. It’s an unforgettable image, stunning in its crassness, and a fitting coda for the year’s most repugnant movie.
Jane, the spunky, ailing heroine of The Theory of Flight, would have no trouble telling Dr. Patch exactly where to stick his red rubber nose. If only there were actually more to this character than her illness and her smart mouth. The faulty logic that underlies Paul Greengrass’s unwittingly patronizing film (and many like it) dictates that Jane (Helena Bonham Carter), a horny, self-possessed virgin with a terminal motor-neuron disease,
and Richard (Kenneth Branagh), an eccentric, impotent misfit who’s obsessed with aviation, are a perfect couple, or at least one whose quirky, doomed, mutually challenging relationship illustrates a variety of platitudes about confronting fears and seizing opportunities.
With carefully slurred speech and perennially cocked head, Bonham Carter’s performance is one long Oscar-night clip (or, in parts, a parody thereof). Branagh can only do so much, given that Richard Hawkins’s script repeatedly leaves him stranded in some awkward corners. Earnest and misguided in equal measure, The Theory of Flight is ostensibly a bold and rare attempt at depicting disabled people as sexual beings, but the notion is couched in such spurious and schematic terms that the film never really stands a chance.