" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

MRQE Top Critic

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John Q is a big disappointment. A feature film with star power, John Q highlights some of the problems with America’s health care system. Unfortunately the movie is so heavy-handed and clichéd that it trivializes the issue.

The previews correctly indicate that this movie is about a man pushed too far by an uncaring, bureaucratic health care system.”Give a father no options,” says the movie’s tagline, “and you leave him no choice.”

It’s about time someone spoke up about the insurance-HMO-welfare axis of evil in a wide-reaching forum. The hell Michael Moore raised with his documentaries, Denzel Washington was going to raise with this feature film.

What a pity then that we get this ridiculous, farfetched, tearjerking snoozer. Even the noble message gets mangled in this mess from director Nick Cassavetes (the son of the great director John Cassavetes).

A Perfect Family

Denzel holds his tools of the tradeJohn Quincy Archibald (Washington) is Mister Perfect. He has a perfect, precious son and a perfect, beautiful wife. He and his wife are both hard working, church-going, blue collar Americans. They are the kind of people affected by jobs sent to Mexico, but they still face life with a good attitude. A few character flaws might have made the movie more plausible and less sickening. (It might have reminded America that ugly, bitter, white collar, childless atheists deserve health care coverage too.)

When John’s son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) suddenly collapses at a wholesome Little League game, they rush him to the hospital. The diagnosis is a weak and swollen heart. Little Mikey needs a transplant or he’ll die.

The Runaround

Anne Heche plays Rebecca Payne (get it?), a cold-as-ice hospital administrator. She encourages John to consider letting Mike die. And I do have to give the filmmakers credit for actually considering it for a moment. Some medial conditions really are incurable, especially if time is short. Sometimes quality of life should be the focus. But naturally, in a major motion picture, that’s not an option. John chooses to try the transplant.

Next comes the chore of paying for it. John gets the runaround from his insurance company, from the hospital, and from the social “safety net” of the United States. John is covered, but not enough. He’s caught in a catch-22 that guarantees neither insurance nor social programs will take full responsibility for Mike’s heart.

As perfect as the Archibald family is, that’s how frustrating The System is. John’s runaround is presented as a montage of uncaring bureaucrats, disappointed glances, and sympathetic music. John Q wants to make sure you get how frustrating the system is, so it goes too far, turning audience sympathy from the Archibalds to clueless director Cassavetes.

John tries to raise the money elsewhere — he can do it but it will take time. The hospital lets the Archibalds slide for as long as possible (about a month), but when John only scrapes together 20 grand out of the 75 needed for a down payment (the surgery itself will cost a quarter of a million dollars), the hospital shuts its doors to him.

Again I have to give the movie credit for making the hospital kind enough to work with the Archibalds for as long as they do. But ultimately they can’t keep Mikey any longer.

Revolting Developments

John’s wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) calls from the hospital, distraught. They’re going to send Mikey home that afternoon. “Do something, do anything!” she says, so John does the only thing he can think to do. He takes a bus downtown (they’ve sold both of their cars, along with their appliances and furniture). He begs the doctors one last time, and failing that, he hijacks the hospital. His demands are simple: put his son on the heart recipient list.

There is a subplot involving cops posturing over jurisdiction. It’s not really needed, but it allows two big names to be added to the marquee: Robert Duvall as a negotiator and Ray Liotta as the chief of police.

And finally, a plot development happens late in the movie that I won’t reveal here. It is so ridiculous that my respect for this movie dropped down to zero. The development itself is not so much ridiculous as desperate, but when the film’s characters take it seriously, the movie becomes absurd. Any hope for John Q being salvaged, disappeared.

Saving Graces

There are some saving graces for the movie, the greatest of all being its subject matter. Perhaps some people’s eyes will be opened to the desperation Americans face when they can’t get health care. Maybe there will be a few calls to Congress. Maybe President Bush will see the movie and take it to heart. But John Q was so bad that I don’t have high hopes.

Some of the dialogue, in spite of being blatantly expository, is well said. A conversation about HMOs involves a doctor (James Woods), several patients, and some orderlies and nurses. It’s nice to hear the doctor concede to some of the flaws and unfairness in the system. A feature film sold as entertainment is probably the wrong forum for this conversation, but as long as the message is delivered, that’s okay.

And of course Denzel Washington is another redeeming value. His portrayal is rock-solid, even if the rest of the movie is a house of cards.

Too Far Gone

But the saving graces are not enough to salvage the movie. The issue is so important that I’d like to be able to recommend it. But it’s just too far gone, even for me.

Next time hire Michael Moore.