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by: Scott Renshaw

We've seen this Robin Williams before, though not much recently. We saw him in GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM as the disc jockey whose unconventional approach to military broadcasting endears him to grunts while irritating The Establishment; we saw him in DEAD POETS SOCIETY as the teacher whose unconventional approach to literature endears him to students while irritating The Establishment. This is Robin Williams the crowd-pleasing riff-meister, playing the comedy-drama character arc in which he is temporarily sobered by tragedy but eventually emerges triumphant in the lives he has touched with humor.

This is the Robin Williams -- the stand-up comic with the heart of gold -- that we see in PATCH ADAMS, the fact-based story of a medical student whose unconventional approach to patient care endears him to patients while irritating The Establishment. Unfortunately, we've never seen this character so compromised by such an aggressively feel-good film. It opens in 1969, where Hunter "Patch" Adams is a voluntary inmate in a mental hospital. His experience with the patients there energizes him with a desire to heal, leading to his enrollment two years later in medical school. There he becomes a top student, but angers a conservative dean (Bob Gunton) by testing his theory that laughter is the best medicine on actual hospital patients. While repeatedly butting heads with administrators, Patch and two classmates (Monica Potter and Daniel London) commit themselves to creating a place where they can treat patients not just with prescriptions, but with compassion, personal contact and big red clown noses.

The first half of PATCH ADAMS certainly belongs to Williams the Clown, given free rein to do his stuff; not coincidentally, it's also the most entertaining half. He performs and pratfalls for a juvenile oncology ward, grants the wishes of the ailing and elderly, and breaks through the anger of a surly terminally ill man (ubiquitous commercial voice Peter Coyote). His rebel with the mile-a-minute mind delivers quite a few laughs through an hour of PATCH ADAMS, but then again, he has to. It's so obvious where this narrative is headed from the moment he enters medical school, Williams offers the only spark of invention. Even when contending with the hammering pathos of grinning, hairless children, he still has the ability to disarm an audience with a joke.

Those grinning, hairless children do bode ill for the second half, when PATCH ADAMS gets serious on us. It's not just that screenwriter Steve Oedekerk and director Tom Shadyac (who teamed up on Eddie Murphy's THE NUTTY PROFESSOR) play to the most cliched devices of emotional manipulation, like a tearful speech over a grave and a pedantic speech in a courtroom setting. What's worse is that they don't understand when not to resort to emotional manipulation. There is a particularly distasteful moment in PATCH ADAMS when a character reveals that she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Instead of allowing the scene any sort of sensitivity or dignity, they turn it into a romantic interlude, complete with Marc Shaiman's obtrusive, syrupy underscore (Shaiman's work should be declared a health risk for diabetics). PATCH ADAMS not only dares you not to be uplifted, it jams a forklift under your seat and slowly grinds you into the ceiling of the theater.

I know plenty of viewers will be amused enough by Williams' antics to consider PATCH ADAMS worthwhile. I know plenty of viewers will be applauding Patch sticking it to Big Medicine as the end credits roll. PATCH ADAMS is a calculated, carefully constructed Response Machine, unencumbered by complexities like making the traditional doctors anything more than ogres. True story or no, this is a vehicle for Robin Williams as we've known him best and loved him most. He's the non-conformist ready to quip you into submission...except that he appears all-too-will


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