Patch Adams

Dec 30, 1998 at 12:00 am

What came first, the invention of saccharine or movies like these, whose cloying, false sweetness leaves a bitter aftertaste? Perhaps the most unnerving thing about both Patch Adams and Stepmom is that it’s not difficult to see the good intentions behind the mediocre end results.

When he first appears onscreen, Hunter Adams (Robin Williams) hardly seems like a man with a mission: He’s suicidal and has voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. But there, as his narration assures us, he will find his true purpose in life.

In quick succession, Hunter acquires a nickname, a vehement distaste for the aloof, rubber-stamp variety of medicine, the realization that laughter can ease suffering, and the understanding that by helping others, he can heal himself. He then morphs into Patch Adams, medical student and crusading reformer-philosopher-clown.

It’s an ideal role for Robin Williams, the opportunity to combine his penchant for playing serious, often troubled characters with his boisterous comedic gifts. Even during the most flighty moments — and there are plenty — Williams’ presence grounds the film. He’s believable as both a top-of-the-class student and someone who will resort to the lowest forms of humor to get a laugh.

Based as it is on a real person — the founder of the Gesundheit Institute who is in the process of building his dream hospital, where treatment is free and whimsy reigns — Patch Adams inserts earnest discussions about the wrongheadedness of the medical establishment in the place of dialogue between characters, resulting in a health care debate as dry and monotonous as anything on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the only difference is that Patch Adams, both real and celluloid, is a doer as much as a talker. And this brings up the film’s most problematic question: Is it wrong to be suspicious of such a single-minded, altruistic person?

Director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk (the team behind Ace Ventura and The Nutty Professor) present Adams as a prophet whose crusade will eventually triumph. Even Patch’s snarky roommate (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and hesitant love interest (Monica Potter) are won over in time. But should they be? Perhaps it’s too much to ask of a medium that’s grown more interested in creating Teflon heroes than portraying the sticky contradictions of individuals.

Strangely, this is also the case with Stepmom, which starts off being about the family battles that result when a divorced parent begins a new relationship, and ends up crowning all the once-bitter participants with glowing halos.

Jackie Harrison (Susan Sarandon) is a smart, sassy supermom, lording over a massive house in the woody suburbs north of New York City. When not displaying home skills that would make Martha Stewart turn green, she provides solid guidance to Anna (Jena Malone), teetering uneasily on the cusp of adolescence, and the merrily mischievous seven-year-old Ben (Liam Aiken).

The kids regularly visit their lawyer father Luke (Ed Harris), who lives in an enormous SoHo loft with his much-younger photographer girlfriend, Isabel (Julia Roberts). If the Harrison children have adjusted to the divorce, they most decidedly haven’t adjusted to Isabel, who is viewed as an evil interloper.

Instead of digging into the messy truth of the situation, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and five screenwriters provide a steady stream of blaringly unfunny situations and vague, gushy aphorisms. Then, if this weren’t quite enough, Jackie finds out she has cancer, and the sentimentality kicks into high gear.

It’s interesting to watch actors as good as Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris occasionally turn such insubstantial material into something with real heft — particularly in their scenes together — but Columbus steers Stepmom through the rough waters of conflict and charts a course for fantasy land, where affluence and understanding make everything all right.

Interestingly, both scripts feature the process of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly as a metaphor for death — which, in Patch Adams, becomes the kind of moment that hovers uncomfortably between life-affirming and hopelessly corny. But even as the filmmakers utilize this analogy, it’s obvious that in Patch Adams and Stepmom, no one is really interested in the hoary caterpillar or its complex metamorphosis, but only want to see the pretty, flighty thing it becomes.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].