Robin Williams has played doctors before, he’s played iconoclasts, he’s played non-conformists who display a sensitivity to human suffering apparently far superior to that of the average human being. 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 subtly yet insistently 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 horse feathers 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 co-written by Steve Oedekirk with a calculated smarm you’d never expect from the men who made “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” is based on a true story: There really is a Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, who, having overcome his own suicidal depression, has devoted his life to helping others in pain, using humor as a tool; he’s the founder of a clinic he calls the Gesundheit Institute, and he takes clowning seriously. But no one, surely, 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 academic dean (Bob Gunton) stresses a physician’s need to eradicate his or her own human emotions — 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 a rubber enema bulb on his nose, or balloons on his head, or novelty glasses with springing eyeballs on his face.
And, oh, how his audience beams! Horribly weak children lift their little bald heads from their pillows, their cancers nothing compared to 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 from “Without Limits”) 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 is 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 and provoking 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.