Patch Adams

By Michael Elliott for The Christian Critic

A laugh a day may not keep the doctor away, but it sure makes his visit a tad bit more tolerable. That's the philosophy of Hunter "Patch" Adams, an ex-mental patient turned medical student. Based upon a true story, Patch Adams is just what the patient ordered.

Patch's theories on the doctor/patient relationship do not exactly impress the medical faculty at the university where he is matriculating. He also has a hard time winning over his fellow students who, he feels, are much too serious for their own good.

If Patch Adams seems reminiscent of Dead Poets' Society, there's a good reason. . . it is. Both movies revolve around a member of an elite group (educators in the latter, medical professionals in the former) who pushes the envelope of conformity and traditional methods to make room for new ideas. Both have their tragic moments, and both have their moments of high comedy. But best of all, both have Robin Williams (What Dreams May Come) as their lead.

Mr. Williams turns in a simply wonderful performance as Patch, a man who discovers the medicinal value of humor and bucks the establishment in order to put it into practice. Mr. Williams mixes just the right blend of irreverence and pathos, added to his own special brand of comedy to present a fully formed and totally believable character.

Whether he's helping a fellow mental patient get to the bathroom by waging a full blown frontal assault on the imaginary squirrels that block the way, or just clowning around in the pediatric ward, Patch uses humor to make a connection with suffering people to bridge the gap between patient and doctor that, in his opinion, should not exist.

Patch Adams sometimes goes over the top, stretching its credibility, as Patch's antics get more and more outrageous, but coming from Mr. Williams, who has spent his career doing the unexpected, we buy into his character's extreme and hilarious behavior.

Director Tom Shadyac clearly has had experience working with innovative comedic actors, having previously worked with Jim Carrey on Liar, Liar and with Eddie Murphy on The Nutty Professor. He has wisely given Mr. Williams the artistic room to "do his thing," surrounding him with competent but relatively unknown actors.

Michael Jeter (TV's Evening Shade) does some fine work as Patch's squirrel-phobic roommate in the asylum and Bob Gunton (Elvis Meets Nixon) is appropriately un-humorous as Dean Walcott, Patch's nemesis in medical school. Monica Potter (ConAir), Daniel London (A Soldier's Sweetheart), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Twister) play Patch's fellow medical students. Peter Coyote (Road Ends) is a cantankerous dying patient who becomes one of Patch's greatest challenges.

Patch's attitude is that medicine should be about more than just delaying death which, after all, is inevitable. A doctor's goal should be to improve the quality of life. To do so requires the doctor to break down the professional distance between the physician and the patient to see them as the fellow human beings that they are. For Patch, humor is the key. He uses it to heal pain and suffering.

In a wonderful scene in the hospital, after being caught by Dean Walcott administering his "humor treatment" to some patients, Patch launches into a rapid fire explanation of the physiological benefits of laughter. Spiritually, his speech could have been neatly summarized by quoting Proverbs 17:22 [KJV]:

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
All sickness, disease, and death is from the spiritual enemy we know as the devil. If we allow ourselves to focus exclusively on our various pains, ailments and maladies, we turn our minds over to the spiritual darkness that is waiting to envelope us. Patch learned this the hard way. He admitted himself to the mental asylum because he could not find his way out of that darkness. In the asylum, he learned that the way to his recovery lay in looking past his problems and reaching out to help other people.

Patch Adams is based on more than a true story. It is also based on the truth of all time - the truth contained in God's Word.

Copyright The Christian Critic. Used by permission.