Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
Patch Adams is full of shit. I truly can’t think of a better way to describe it. I could come up with some convoluted metaphor and tell you that watching Tom Shadyac’s 1998 catastrophe is like going to a restaurant and having the waiter spit on your food. I could call it “Jojo Rabbit for the Clinton Era” or label it a “misguided crowd-pleaser.” But I won’t do any of that because I – unlike Patch Adams – refuse to bullshit you.
In the late sixties, Hunter Adams (Robin Williams) checks himself into a mental institution. Depressed, he can’t figure out his purpose. In this rushed prologue, “Patch” (he eventually starts going by Patch) decides he can reach his fellow patients better than their doctors, by using humor and believing in their perspectives. When his roommate starts freaking out because he’s surrounded by imaginary squirrels, Patch helps him kill them using an imaginary arsenal. Convinced he’s cured the guy, Patch promptly checks himself out of the institution and enrolls in medical school.
From here, Patch wears the same smug smile as anyone who’ll blabber to you about the transformative powers of “alternative medicine.” You see, he’s simply more sophisticated than the scientists, doctors, and professors who think they can teach him how to heal people. Patch knows better – kids with cancer actually don’t need chemotherapy, they need a loud man with a red rubber nose! It’s all just so whimsical.
I wish Patch Adams was right. I wish a smile could cure any disease, undo any trauma, and wipe away all the pain. But Patch Adams is full of shit. We must greet our existence with a grin, but that won’t make it much less grim. That’s the rub. That’s the burden of being alive. We all owe it to ourselves to negotiate some sort of compromise between misery, honesty and joy, but Patch’s balance – the balance of Patch Adams – isn’t just wrong. It’s bullshit.
I’ve never seen Robin Williams so misdirected and misused. He appears completely committed to the role, to the ignorant and dishonest point-of-view of Patch. Williams was capable of projecting endless, boundless energy. That passion would outweigh whatever deck was stacked against whoever he played. But here, the deck that’s stacked against Patch is centuries of science – and the general principle of not being an idiot.
Williams plays Patch like this enlightened clown, while the film utterly fails to prove that he’s enlightened, or even attempt to interrogate his clownery. Patch does indeed raise some real critiques of the healthcare system in this country (namely that it’s an expensive pain in the ass), but they’re so poorly integrated into Williams’ hokey schtick that they lose any bite. When you consider that this actor was doing brilliant, understated work – without sacrificing any of that hypnotic passion – the same year in Good Will Hunting, Williams’ choices become all the more baffling.
Squint hard enough, and you can see the traces of interesting ideas lodged inside this turd. Patch occasionally does have a desire to listen to the sick, his “treatments” taking the form of a simulation of the patient’s desires. An older woman confesses her wish to take a bath in a pool of noodles, so later, when she refuses to eat Patch buys an inflatable pool and a bunch of pasta – you get the idea. A better movie could’ve delved into the ensuing questions: what good are our fantasies in the face of death? Do they have any power to heal? If art can supply a constructed reality to those who desperately want to escape their own, what are the obligations of the artist?
Patch Adams doesn’t have its shit together enough to actually challenge its viewers with these themes; I’m not endorsing this reading of the film, just imagining a version of this story could be interpreted along these lines. But if Patch is a prodigy who effortlessly connects with people, his roommate Mitch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his equally annoying foil. Mitch came to med school to learn how to be a doctor just like his daddy. His pretentious presence can suck the air out of a room before Patch can waste his breath on an unfunny joke. You may wind up wishing both these characters would suffocate.
I’ve never seen Robin Williams so misdirected and misused.
There’s not much to be said about Mitch or Hoffman’s performance – like everybody here, he’s got more in common with a telephone pole than a real person. But credit where it’s due: Hoffman could’ve really sabotaged this thing by making Mitch a likeable alternative to Patch. By the time he appeared, I was looking for any other character to identify with, but Hoffman makes him so pompous that Mitch just sucks. Patch Adams needs Mitch to come around on Patch in the third act, and had Hoffman made Mitch even the slightest bit friendly or affable, you wouldn’t believe he needed Patch’s help.
By the way, that third act is where the bullshit is most pungent – even if Patch and his ideology weren’t trash, this would still be a very badly constructed movie. You see, one of Patch’s peers is Carin (Monica Potter). From the moment he starts staring at her across a crowded lecture hall, Patch becomes obsessed, berating Carin and demanding that she think he’s oh-so-charming and hilarious. Now, this is romance! But no sooner has Carin given into Patch’s unrelenting advances than she’s abruptly murdered. Her death serves no purpose but to motivate our hero.
Patch’s bullshit is tested in the face of this stupid, poorly-written tragedy, but nevertheless he persists. Things culminate in a courtroom scene, and as Roger Ebert put it in his review of the film, “Any screenwriter who uses a courtroom scene in a non-legal movie is not only desperate for a third act, but didn’t have a second act that led anywhere” (funny, this applies to Scent of a Woman as well). A happy ending is sure to follow – for everyone except Carin, who seems forgotten as Patch prances off into the sunset.
Patch Adams isn’t just the worst movie I’ve seen for P.S.H. I Love You (taking that honor from Cold Mountain), it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever encountered. Its false inspiration lands with a hollow thud, far more likely to enrage than uplift. It stands as an insult to anyone who has ever suffered. Thanks to his work on The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flawless, and his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, by the late nineties Hoffman didn’t have to take every part he was offered. His career could afford to leave movies like this behind – that is, movies that are completely full of shit.