For 11 years I’d managed to avoid Tom Shadyac’s Patch Adams (1998). The image of Robin Williams in a red-clown nose was—and is—like a crucifix to a vampire for me. I had heard of its legendary gooeyness, but until now, I’d never experienced it. It is safe to say that from its very opening shots—complete with Marc Shaiman’s tinkly piano musical score—I knew this was going to be bad. I actually didn’t know just how bad, though, till I slogged my way through this Hollywoodized version of the story of Hunter Adams, a doctor who brought clowning to medicine. The merits of the real Patch Adams’ approach to being a doctor to one side, this is one appalling movie—though it actually feels like two or three appalling movies.
It’s not just that Patch Adams is a shamelessly manipulative sap-a-thon, it’s that it’s one that indulges to the hilt every obnoxious, hyperactive, oh-what-I-wouldn’t-give-for-a-tranquilizer-gun aspect of Robin Williams’ performing style—and then has the gall to ask you to admire him for it. Considering that the film appears to have made quite a tidy sum of money, it must have succeeded in that regard. I can’t imagine how, since Williams unleashed in this manner makes my skin crawl. Then again, it may be the perfect performance for this particular movie, which says a lot about the movie. Bad as the film may be (and I understand that Adams himself is not pleased with it), it’s being shown as part of a worthy cause, so it might be as well to consider it more in that light than as a movie in itself.
The film is taking the place of World Cinema this week as part of a fundraiser with members of Patch Adams’ Gesundheit! Institute. The movie will be followed by a discussion about humanitarian clowning and a brief slide show about Ash Devine’s experiences traveling to Haiti and Peru with the real Patch Adams.