If the real-life Robin Williams were a doctor, he would be the real-life Patch Adams, who believes that doctors should treat the patient, not the disease, and that sick, frightened people need to feel that those who take care of them are paying attention. So it is easy for us to come to this movie prepared for something warm and reassuring. Unfortunately, the movie is so unforgiveably manipulative and shallow that in the concluding climactic scene, set in a courtroom just in case you weren’t sure who the good guys and the bad guys were, you may find yourself rooting for the uptight by-the-rulebook dean of the medical school.
We meet Patch when he is a patient in a mental hospital, where he learns that his mental health is improved more by helping other patients than by treatment from the doctors. From there, it is off to medical school, where he manages to be at the top of his classes while spending most of his time at the hospital making the patients laugh. How could the faculty object to this? Could it be because a first-year medical student might interfere with a patient’s treatment and cause serious harm? No, it can only be because they are fuddy-duddies who just can’t remember how to have fun! And while we’re on the subject of fun, how about stealing supplies from the hospital for a little clinic that Patch and his friends set up in their spare time? And what goes on at that clinic? Medical students who have no idea how serious the problems are “treat” patients with bandages and kindness. When the inability to diagnose the severity of illness has the most profoundly tragic results, Patch only has a brief crisis before putting that darn clown-nose back on and getting back to the serious business of making patients laugh.
There are a lot of important points to be made here about the dignity that all of us deserve when we are scared and vulnerable and about the importance of humor in the direst of circumstances. But this movie undercuts its own arguments by presenting us with a hero who is more narcissistic than humanitarian. The old joke about Hollywood is that the only thing that matters there is sincerity, and once you learn to fake that, you’re all set. This movie, with its adoring bald kids and old lady swimming in noodles and bedpan clown shoes, cannot even manage to fake it.