January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

You've Got Mail

Current Status
In Season
Wide Release Date
Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Dave Chappelle, Dabney Coleman, Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton
Nora Ephron
Warner Bros.
Nora Ephron
Comedy, Romance
We gave it a B

Robin Williams has played doctors before, he’s played iconoclasts, he’s played nonconformists who display a sensitivity to human suffering far superior to that of the average human. Often these characters are funny and hyper-verbal, propelled by the comedian’s restless wit and his craving for the emotional release he finds in improvisation. Always they make a big, fat play for our admiration. (Such an inspiration to students in Dead Poets Society! Such a gifted shrink in Good Will Hunting!) But nothing Williams has done is quite as craven and full of horsefeathers as his star turn in Patch Adams, an offensive and deeply false ”inspirational” drama that idiotically indicts the entire medical profession in the service of making one man — Adams, which is to say Williams — look like a cockeyed saint.

The movie, directed by Tom Shadyac and written by Steve Oedekerk with a calculated smarm you’d never expect from two men behind the Ace Ventura films, is based on a true story: There really is a Dr. Hunter ”Patch” Adams, who, having overcome his own depression, has devoted his life to helping others in pain, using humor as a tool; he’s the founder of the Gesundheit Institute, and he takes clowning seriously. But no one takes clowning as egotistically as the Adams created by Williams. Enrolled in medical school — supposedly in the late 1960s, but for all intents and purposes in a Victorian age when a Scrooge-like dean (Bob Gunton) stresses a doctor’s need to eradicate his or her own humanity — Adams questions authority at every turn. ”Illegally” visiting hospital patients (he’s a first-year student, and only third-year students are allowed), he miraculously lifts their spirits by putting an enema bulb on his nose or rubber gloves on his head.

And, oh, how his audience beams! Horribly weak children lift their little bald heads, their cancers nothing compared with his mighty talent. Nurses (all of them grossly undervalued, of course) laugh at his antics like delighted lovers. A violent, dying man (Peter Coyote) lets go of his terrible rage when Adams sings ”Blue Skies.” Fellow students — notably a pretty grind (Monica Potter) and a devoted sidekick (Daniel London) — look at their leader as nothing less than a god. Only the evil dean and the cartoonishly heartless medical establishment he represents are threatened by Patch’s unconventional ways.

”I want to really listen to people!” Adams burbles when he discovers his life’s calling. But with Williams prancing so shamelessly, Patch Adams doesn’t leave room for anyone else to breathe, let alone speak. It goes down like medicine. And the side effects are toxic. F

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