Reviews > Culture

Patchwork physician

Culture | Surprise, surprise: Robin Williams plays smart-aleck genius; love online on-screen; and rediscovering Sinatra

Issue: "Parable of the perjurer," Jan. 9, 1999

The doctor as comedian
Is the medical profession evil? Do doctors see themselves on a plane above their patients? Robin Williams's new Oscar contender Patch Adams (Universal, rated PG-13) makes this argument with a heavy hand. His title character is a troubled genius who fights back from suicidal tendencies by deciding to give his life to helping other people. So he heads to med school, but is disturbed because he can't work with patients until his third year. So he sets off on his own, visiting sick people in the hospital, telling them jokes, and breaking school rules. Patch feuds with a dean who hates him and wants to expel him. Our hero only steps up his efforts, setting up a free, unlicensed clinic in a West Virginia wilderness where anyone can walk in and get treatment. Patch's attempt to blur the line between doctor and patient results in tragedy for one of his cohorts, but he only gets bolder, fighting a state medical board and telling more jokes. The performances are great, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as Patch's snotty roommate. In this case, Patch Adams's laughter-is-the-best-medicine message rings hollow. Does anybody really want a doctor who puts on Robin Williams's antics in a hospital room? Just to convince the audience that Patch's heart is pure, we're subjected to a stock courtroom defense scene where Patch gives a long soliloquy about the "quality of life." Patch Adams is tailor-made for Robin Williams's gifts. It combines his frenetic comedic persona with the caring-healer character best seen in Awakenings. Like the star's last movie, What Dreams May Come, it assumes the audience will automatically buy the film's message without question. But Patch comes off as a self-indulgent, unteachable, Vietnam-era eccentric who won't listen to anyone. E-mail order bride
Online romance is a weird way to meet. People completely disconnected pour out the deepest thoughts to others through their modems. Usually reality kicks in to dash one's dreams of a soulmate, but sometimes it works. America Online and Compuserve really have spawned a lot of marriages. Small wonder the Sleepless in Seattle people reunite for a movie about digital love, You've Got Mail (rated PG for language). Writer-director-mushmeister Nora Ephron brings together Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to relive a story that already worked for Jimmy Stewart (The Shop Around the Corner) and Judy Garland (In the Good Old Summertime): Two people fall for each other through letters only to discover they hate each other in real life. This time, stars Hanks and Ryan are both involved in dead-end cohabiting relationships. Ms. Ryan owns a cute independent bookshop being driven out of business by Mr. Hanks's book superstore. They're backed up by a TV-veteran supporting cast (including Greg Kinnear, Jean Stapleton, and Dabney Coleman). Everything is super familiar, but it works like a finely tuned violin. The story is obvious, but the star couple is like a postmodern Hepburn and Tracy. (The Ryan-Hanks duo, in addition to Seattle, also made the cult classic Joe vs. The Volcano back in 1990.) Their performances are sharp, saving the movie from cliché city. You've Got Mail is cute, romantic bubble gum for the brain that screams "date movie." It isn't really about the new online frontier (wait until both bookstore owners have to deal with Amazon.com); rather, it is about the love-hate-hate-love theme that is as old as Western Civilization. Ms. Ephron wisely stays away from cyber-cutesiness and focuses on one of the Net's overlooked joys: writing. E-mail has brought back the art of letters in ways not seen since the rise of direct-dial phone service. Every time our heroes fight, they retire to their apartments to pour out erudite post-game explorations of what just happened. If only real e-mail worked like that. In their stylized world, they never deal with spam or weirdos wanting to chat. The Internet does promote human relationships, but in a gnostic way. You only know the other person's words. For the discerning, the Internet is a great way to meet people, but-as the movie shows-the real surprises come in the flesh. He did it his way
Frank Sinatra is becoming our new Elvis Presley, a late, great musical phenomenon whose mix of success and personal turmoil is a case study of Americana. Pete Hamill, in Why Sinatra Matters (Little, Brown), steers clear of both adulation and denunciation while looking at the lessons of the crooner's famous contradictions. Mr. Hamill, who was once asked to ghostwrite Sinatra's autobiography, sees in him the immigrant's turmoil of "la via nuova over la via vecchia"-the old Italian ways of his parents colliding with the new ways of modernity and Americanization. Sinatra grew up with bigotry, Prohibition, and boxing. He sang to give himself a slice of the American pie. He loved painting and classical music, yet was one of the great garish, almost misogynist, figures of tacky Las Vegas. Sinatra was a tough wise guy outwardly, but he lived with the profound loneliness that flowed through his songs. "Across a lifetime he would make many attempts to relieve loneliness, submerging it in marriages and love affairs, hard-drinking camaraderie, bursts of movement and action and anger," Mr. Hamill writes. "But the only thing that permanently worked was the music." Thus the Chairman of the Board created a persona rarely seen before in American culture: the Tender Tough Guy. Gearing his performance to an America hardened by war and the Great Depression, Sinatra learned to be touching without sounding unmanly. Mr. Hamill's book focuses on Sinatra through his turbulent second marriage to Ava Gardner and his collaboration with Nelson Riddle. The later years of the Rat Pack and legend status, Mr. Hamill says, were a combination of good work and "some appalling, self-indulgent junk." It's a shame that Sinatra died just as America started revisiting swing and other pop music that had been buried under the bulldozers of rock 'n' roll. Mr. Hamill predicts that Sinatra's personal image will fade as his music carries on, but most of what post-boomers know of him is a picture of an arrogant, womanizing, mob-connected ruffian. Nevertheless, the legend of Old Blue Eyes will continue, shot through the prism of pop culture dreams.

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