`John Q' medicine too strong

February 15, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

For movie lovers, there's no reason to see John Q. except during a fit of insomnia when it shows up on late-night cable. All that makes it bearable in the theater is the anger it sets off in the audience over America's medical mismanagement.

Remember the crack about HMOs that brought down the house in As Good As It Gets? John Q. uses outrage over our health care system to fuel an entire two-hour hostage drama. The spluttering it rouses from insurance-burned viewers has far more vitality than the actual content of the movie.

John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) is a happily married -- and dead-broke -- factory worker who picks up a gun and barricades himself, a security guard and a handful of patients and doctors in an emergency room, threatening to start shooting unless the hospital's chief administrator puts his dying son on the list to receive a donor heart.

The movie shamelessly constructs a worst-case scenario that will trigger rage in anyone who's paid out-of-pocket for a medical catastrophe. The son's triply enlarged heart was never detected because HMO doctors cut corners on the checkups. John's employers have reduced his workload to 20 hours a week and switched insurance carriers without telling him. He doesn't realize his benefits will not pay for a heart transplant. The operation costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; he has $1,000 in the bank. And the hospital demands cash.

The filmmakers don't trust the power of their subject: they not only stack the deck -- they dip half of it in poison and the other half in holy water. The movie goes awry from the opening shots of a woman dying in a car crash as her cross clinks against her rear-view mirror and "Ave Maria" plays on the soundtrack. An hour later, when John prays for a miracle, you know exactly where it will come from.

I can't say what's worse -- the demonizing of the managerial class (and the idolizing of the working class) that goes on in the first two-thirds of the movie, or the turnarounds in the final third, when superstar heart surgeon James Woods decides to start acting like a doctor and hospital chief Anne Heche discovers that she has a beating heart herself. Heche is actually livelier as a witch than she is as a do-gooder; voices in the theater keep calling for her death. But this is one feel-good kind of muckraker -- only the police chief is hissable to the end.

Do movies like this ever really raise political consciousness? The notion that we're all to blame for resisting higher taxes to fund a better system gets dropped into a talking-head montage. As with New Line's equally meretricious I Am Sam, classy actors from Washington on down sign up for a cause and give up acting for pushing buttons and portraying the worst versions of themselves. Woods plays the smartest man in the emergency room, Ray Liotta the sleazy police chief.

Robert Duvall comes off better as the flinty hostage expert who knows his job. Heche, on the other hand, goes so insanely far, first into icy efficiency and then into teary-eyed virtue, that for the first time I bought what she wrote in her autobiography -- that for a while she believed she was a messenger from a fourth dimension of pure love.

John Q

Starring Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche and Ray Liotta

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Released by New Line

Rated PG-13

Running time 118 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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