Robin Williams has only two performance modes on screen: manic and depressive. The manic mode is delivered in fits of supposedly hilarious mugging, high-speed improvising and burlesque clowning – the Mork side of the star's persona. The depressive mode (which dominates his more serious roles) is set rigid in glum, mournful facial expressions. It is hard to say which mode is worse.
One would think this manic-depressive circuit might render believable the opening of Patch Adams, in which Williams checks himself into a mental institution. But, whether suffering unspecified agonies or tapping mystically into the pain of those around him like in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, Williams is never a credible part of any scene or moment. Narcissistically entranced by the spectacle of his own histrionics, he floats above the film like a hot-air balloon.
Patch Adams is the embodiment of everything that people call phony in mainstream Hollywood movies. Although "based on a true story", it is the slickest, most evasive, least real drama on screen at present – built at every moment on handy clichés, stereotypes and approximations. This would not necessarily be a problem if the film were not also so sanctimonious and self-congratulatory.
The one curious aspect of this terrible movie is its message, which remains compelling and urgent no matter how thoroughly the filmmakers massacre it. Patch – whose one dream is to become a certified doctor – believes in a highly emotional, life-giving, fun-loving form of treatment.
His philosophy is contrasted – with heavy-handed, schematic simplicity – with the hyper-rationalism of medical school. According to the official teachings which Patch does his best to subvert, physical facts are all that matter, objectivity is supreme, and psychological transference is the worst sin of all.
The debate between established and alternative medicine touches all our lives. But this film scarcely explores it, either as drama or comedy. Director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk cultivate vagueness on all key points. No illness that Patch encounters is ever named, nor do we see how his idiosyncratic treatment might actually work as an ongoing cure. The ills of traditional medicine are swiftly embodied in a single scapegoat, bad guy Walcott (Bob Gunton).
Less central characters fare no better. Patch's classmates (several decades younger than him, of course) strike postures of either disbelief or sympathy as their overgrown colleague yuks it up and delivers tiresome sermons. His girlfriend Carin (Monica Potter) is a relative of the Robin Wright character in Forrest Gump (1994) – touchy, melancholic, dogged by unnamed and unnameable past trauma. It is the kind of film in which, once characters are off-screen, it is easy to forget they ever existed.
Williams, unfortunately, is almost never off-screen – and the film depends exclusively on his assumed charisma. At one point, Walcott enters into a report his considered opinion that Patch exhibits "excessive happiness". Everyone in the movie jeers at this line but, watching Williams don yet another red nose and hearing him adopt yet another wacky voice, some viewers may come to sympathise with the old bastard's judgment.
MORE Shadyac: Liar Liar
© Adrian Martin March 1999