Published December 1, 1998
You’ve got to be thinking: isn’t one inspirational, sensitive, meaningful, caring, profound movie starring Robin Williams enough for one year? At least, could we keep it down to twice a year? At present we’re getting them at a clip of one every other month and it does seem a tear too much. It was only back in October that we had to endure the lachrymose but juvenile spirituality of What Dreams May Come. Now there is the almost equally awful Patch Adams, directed by Tom Shadyac from a screenplay by Steve Oedekerk, supposedly based on the true story of Hunter, “Patch,” Adams, a medical student at the “Virginia Medical University” who challenges that institution’s authority, as represented by the evil Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), to go on turning out soberly scientific, dispassionate doctors, humorless men like Walcott himself, detached from the lives of those they treat. The monsters!
The film begins in mental hospital, where the pre-med school Adams has checked himself in because he feels suicidal. His roommate, Rudy, is afraid to get out of bed because of marauding squirrels. After trying to convince Rudy that the squirrel is an amiable beast and, even if there were lots of them there in the room with them (which, by the way, there are not), they would not hurt him, Adams breaks down and joins Rudy in his delusion, convincing him that the two of them are waging war against the imaginary squirrels with imaginary weapons. It does Rudy good and it does Patch good as well, since it teaches him that he can help people by flattering their delusions. An important lesson for con-men and politicians, perhaps, but maybe not the best, we cannot help thinking, for doctors.
Likewise, the “genius” Arthur Mandelson whom he meets in the nut-house teaches Patch another dubious lesson. His own delusion is the “genius syndrome” that comes from “constantly digging into the creative potential of the human mind.” As one of the asylum’s attendants puts it, “Maybe he dug too deep.” Now he goes around holding up four fingers and asking newcomers “How many fingers?” When they answer, “Four,” he shakes his head and says, “Another idiot.” But he teaches Patch that if you squinch up your eyes and look beyond the fingers you will find you are seeing eight, and that‘s the right answer. The idea is “to see what no one else sees”—which, if nothing else, is at least a likely lesson to be learned in a booby hatch.
Whether we want doctors who have learned it to be treating us is of course another matter, but somehow seeing four fingers where there are four fingers is associated here with the nasty Dean Walcott’s desire to “train the humanity out of you.” Patch, fortunately for him, is in little need of training of any sort. Like Arthur Mandelson—or, by the way, the hero of Good Will Hunting, another movie which makes a parade of Mr Williams’s now-famous sensitivity—is a genius who apparently never has to crack a book in order to finish top of his medical school class. That, at least, is Hollywood’s idea of genius. So he has plenty of time to spend in the hospital playing games and telling jokes to cheer patients up. He insists that this is good medicine, that patients “share their fantasies” with him.
Later he gets Mandelson to bankroll a rustic clinic based on these principles, as a free hospital where he and his fellow hippie docs can treat people with humor. “There will be no bosses,” decrees Patch, who is the boss, and “the aim is love.” Far out! To staff his clinic, he manages to charm his initially hostile med-school classmates as he has already charmed patients and nurses and, doggone it, just about everybody save curmudgeons and skeptics like me. Of course he suffers an appalling tragedy along the way. It wouldn’t be a Robin Williams role without one. But in the end he triumphs over Dean Walcott (as we knew he would) in a ridiculously implausible courtroom scene. So much for the “centuries of experience” which have made medical training what it is.