Heavy-handed, embarrassingly manipulative, plotted like a bad TV movie, John Q ought to have been called Dog Day Heart Transplant. No pun intended, but this movie’s heart is in the right place, even if nothing much else is. Do we need an indictment of the health-care system in this country and outrage over the fact that we don’t have government health care? Of course we do, but this movie isn’t it. Director Nick Cassavetes (son of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands) milks James Kearns’ (a writer from TV’s Highway to Heaven — a fact which explains much) preposterous screenplay for everything its worth — and he does so with the heaviest hand imaginable. It’s all overwrought and simplistic and it deals from the most obviously stacked of stacked decks from the very onset. With all the subtlety of a World War II propaganda picture, John Q takes nigh on to forever to set up the basic premise of John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) taking an emergency room hostage to blackmail the hospital into performing a heart transplant on his dying son. Well, yes, some background was needed, but the movie lays the build-up thicker than Tammy Faye Bakker’s make-up — and all to get to a plot we already know from the trailers! Most of this back story — apart from a not very puzzling, but seemingly unrelated, event involving a car crash — is there to show us what an aces guy John Q is, what a wonderful father and husband he is, what a put-upon working-class hero he is, etc. (Much PR fuss has been made over Washington spending three days in a factory learning how to operate heavy equipment for his role. Considering all we see is about 45 seconds of him not operating a hand-held grinding wheel, this seems as much overkill as the movie itself is.) It’s like Washington is making up for his aberrant, wildly over-the-top bad guy role in Training Day. Problem is John Q turns him into St. Denzel and it’s both unbelievable and ultimately laughable. Not that believability seems to have been on anyone’s mind regarding this movie. There was a popular song about the fantasy of television back in the early 1980s called “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by the short-lived group a-ha, and it would serve nicely as the theme song of John Q. It’s just so very much a TV movie on the Big Screen that you just know the sun is going to shine. And shine it does. With the exception of Ray Liotta’s smarmy police chief — decked out in more stars and commendations than those sported by the late General MacArthur — everyone in John Q turns out to really be “just folks” by the end of the movie. This includes a nasty tempered girlfriend beater (Shawn Hatosy) who tries to stab John Q, but thaws into a pretty decent guy as soon as John jokes with him. Then there’s the utterly venal cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods), a man so impressed with himself that he has to be forced to operate on a dying man at gun point rather than demean himself by patching up a gunshot wound — he finally comes around, too. Best of all, we have hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche), the real villain of the piece. She not only denies John’s son a heart transplant, but she also smokes — a sure sign in a modern Hollywood movie of true villainy. Her ultimate attitude adjustment is completely out of nowhere and is so poorly handled that you aren’t even sure where scam leaves off and sincerity begins! The worst thing about all this is that most of the cast does far more with the material than it deserves, making the film actually work on you part of the time — only to leave you feeling like you’ve really been had by the ending, which doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions to go all the way into the Ayn Randian cloud cuckoo land of its ersatz Fountainhead legalistic climax. Of course, had it done that, the whole thing might have seemed unbelievable … oh, right, it passed that point an hour earlier.
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