That noise you hear almost continuously during "Patch Adams" is the sound of buttons being pushed.
A relentlessly manipulative feel-gooder, "Patch Adams" is not so much a movie as a chance for Robin Williams to perform stand-up comedy wearing a medical gown.
Based on the real-life story of a man so disturbed by the medical profession's bedside manner that he started a hospital based on the idea that laughter really can be an effective healer, "Patch Adams" pushes so hard to make you smile that you'll end up laughing just to try to make it stop. Backed by Mark Shaiman's ceaselessly evocative score, the film presents a hero who never seems to have a bad moment -- save for when one of his friends dies, and even that passes fairly quickly.
We first see Hunter Adams (Williams) checking himself into a psychiatric hospital for depression. While there, he encounters the first in a series of doctors from hell -- power-mad, soulless creatures about as personable as blocks of wood. This treatment is wrong, Hunter insists; patients need to be treated like human beings, need to be made to laugh.
So he checks out of the hospital -- where he's picked up the nickname Patch for fixing a fellow patient's drinking cup -- and checks into medical school. There, he proves both brilliant, effortlessly rising to near the top of his class, and maddening. His insistence on engaging people as people, his willingness to play the clown, gets under the skin of Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), who's determined to rid his hospital of this flake.
But Patch somehow survives. With the help of friends, he opens a clinic that's only the precursor to his planned Gesundheit Institute, where he can put his theory of feel-good medicine into practice.
So far, so good; how many patients wouldn't want a doctor who's as concerned about their mental well-being as their body? But how many people would really want Robin Williams as their doctor? Make no mistake; Patch Adams is simply Robin Williams with a stethoscope, speaking bluntly, cracking wise, wearing funny noses and invariably bringing the ward to its knees with laughter.
Williams, certainly one of Hollywood's great forces of nature, has proven that he can act. And under a director willing to rein him in a little, he can be a marvelous screen presence ("The World According to Garp," "Awakenings," "Good Will Hunting"). But Tom Shadyac ("Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "Liar, Liar") simply lets him loose, and his fellow actors are left standing around watching.
Only Monica Potter (Nicolas Cage's wife in "Con Air") as Patch's reluctant girlfriend makes much of an impression, and that's because she actually plays a character, not just an archetype. Looking like a blond Julia Roberts, she quietly forces Williams to underplay his scenes with her. The result is most enchanting, the film's only believable relationship.
"Patch Adams" is not exactly a waste; no film with Robin Williams playing Robin Williams can fail to make you laugh. But the real Patch Adams sounds like a fascinating character, far more so than the one-note clown portrayed here.
Starring Robin Williams and Monica Potter
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Released by Universal
Rated PG-13 (language, brief nudity)
Running time 120 minutes
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 12/25/98