It is a widely accepted truth of the American liberal ideology that every body hates greedy HMO’s, manipulative television journalists and self-serving politicians. Hollywood often uses this contempt for the impersonal, power-hungry elite to create crowd-pleasing entertainment. No film in recent memory has manipulated this public discontent with the gale-force intensity of “John Q.” Yet the film makes very little impact. In the process of bashing every American enemy in the book, the Denzel Washington vehicle forgoes good filmmaking for rampant politicizing.
In order to examine the problems of insufficient health coverage, director Nick Cassavetes’ film creates the paragon of man-against-the-system frustration. Washington’s titular hero John Q. Archibald is a good father and a hard worker. He represents the tragic struggle of the lower class to survive financial deprivation in society that offers little opportunity to do so.
Amid this life of hardship, all John has is his beautiful wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) and his adorable son Mikey (newcomer Daniel E. Smith). So when his boy develops a life-threatening heart condition, John resorts to extreme measures to save him. Unfortunately, he cannot pay for the operation; moreover, both his sleazy insurance company and the strict, bureaucratic hospital administration refuse to offer assistance.
Left without options and unable to raise the necessary $75,000, John does what he has to do: he confronts the hospital’s head of surgery (James Woods), pulls him into the hospital’s emergency room, barricades the doors, and holds the ER’s inhabitants hostage. His only demand: that his son receive a new heart — or he will kill hostages.
The film’s message that money often takes precedence over human life is important and noble. At the same time, the movie becomes so preachy that it saps the power of its own thesis. A good “message movie” parlays the emotional impact of its cause by utilizing the medium itself: it tells a smart, well-paced story and creates interesting, complex characters to involve its audience and flesh out its critical view.
“John Q.” does not make the grade. Instead of telling a story, it weaves together a series of moments that lash out at easy targets: John yelling at various hospital administrators, a beaten woman kicking her racist boyfriend, and a selfish surgeon defending “the system.” Isolated from the rest of the film, each moment articulates an intelligent criticism. Yet in succession, the individual cliches deprive the film of its bite.
Adding to this political impotence is the movie’s suspension of reality. Lack of realism is a crucial offense for a film that wants to illuminate a real and devastating issue. For example, instead of eliciting drama through identifiable human dilemmas, it draws suspense from a shameless climax that resembles a twisted, ’50s sci-fi extravaganza. In fact, the entire hostage situation veers past emotional validity. The hostages actually side with their captor, in effect justifying his inappropriate course of action.
“John Q.” would have been a much more revealing cinematic experience if it drew from this complex paradox of John’s aims and his means. Here’s a wonderful man who uses violent, rash action to vent his frustrations. Yet instead of pursing this complexity, the film forgoes moral tension for reassuring simplicity, insulting the intelligence of the very audience it is meant to rouse.
Ironically, it is this very aversion to risk that detracts from the film’s impact. Had it gone in a more uncomfortable and dangerous direction, this examination of the effects of a corrupt system would have been far more devastating.
Washington cannot be blamed for the film’s inability to scratch the surface of societal greed: he’s a wonderfully reliable actor who is always fun to root for. Obviously, he saw the film as a chance to deliver angry soliloquys about evil HMOs. Drawn to these “actor moments,” he must have forgot to read the rest of the script.
The all-star supporting cast, including Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta, James Woods and Anne Heche, probably signed on for the same reasons, but they do not fare nearly as well with characters that seem to have been sketched by a baboon.
“John Q.’s” final declaration that “there are currently 48 million U.S. citizens without health insurance” is startling and disturbing. One only hopes that a stronger script and a better director can convey the power of this statement in a less didactic film.