If a man in a smock is in your future, it would be hard to go wrong with Robin Williams in the role. The eternally impish actor is capable of projecting qualities that most patients would treasure in practitioners of the healing arts. Remember the sympathy and empathy he projected as a psychiatrist in "Awakenings," a psychologist in "Good Will Hunting" and a pediatrician in the otherwise mediocre What Dreams Will Come?
Williams successfully slips into another warm and fuzzy suit for "Patch Adams," a bear hug of a holiday movie about the efforts of a real-life physician (spot the cameo) to incorporate humor and sensitivity in his treatment of patients.
Although awfully saccharine on occasion, "Patch Adams" is a pleasantly told tale of a life well lived. Tom Shadyac, the director responsible for "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "The Nutty Professor," easily moves to more serious fare with a breezy comedy packed with one-line zingers and likable performances.
"All of life is a coming home," Patch says, in voiceover, during the bleak, wintry preamble -- complete with New Age piano and strings -- that opens the film. He's suicidal, for reasons not quite explained, and decides to admit himself into a psychiatric unit.
Patch's encounters with various mentally disturbed patients occupy the first portion of the film. The genial newcomer befriends, and in short order encourages his cell companion, who fears a deadly attack by squirrels, an aging mathematic genius gone to waste and a catatonic man with one arm permanently pointed to the ceiling. Screenwriters Shadyack and Steve Oedekerk doubtless took a cue or two from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Patch's awakening, if you will, comes in a flash, after realizing his own capacity to help others and noticing how little serious attention is paid to his condition at the mental hospital. He vows to "help people" and promptly shows up at medical school, where his goofy enthusiasm is sneered at by bookish roommate Mitch (an underused Philip Seymour Hoffman, of "Boogie Nights") and humorless Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton). "Passion doesn't make doctors," Walcott insists.
The eager student aces exams with the greatest of ease and in short order is sneaking off to the school's affiliated teaching hospital to interact with patients, a privilege not usually extended to first-year students. Shadyack wisely steps back and allows Williams to do his thing. He dons floppy shoes, a clown nose and -- later -- angel wings for a series of funny, touching exchanges with children and the elderly.
Patch is kind of a walking Make-a-Wish foundation: He enables one woman fulfill her dream of swimming around in a vat of noodles, uses balloon animals to help a former big-game hunter relive past glories and lets crusty, bitter Bill Davis (Peter Coyote) say goodbye to life with grace and dignity.
Every comedian needs a romantic interest, and Patch finds one in fellow student Carin (Monica Potter), a beautiful, ambitious ice queen who initially freezes out her suitor and then melts under the heat of his gentle persistence and kindness. Patch, Carin and nerdy Truman (Daniel London) eventually pool their resources for a free clinic, the operation of which leads to a tragedy and nearly costs Patch his diploma.
"Patch Adams," easy to like thanks to Williams' affable, poignant performance and a funny script, also is plagued with predictability and infected with too many characters -- the evil dean, the party-pooper roommate -- who come off as caricatures. Patch's showdown with the administration, too, is rather heavy handed. Still, only a Scrooge could resist this physician's friendly ministrations. And who would want to?