Movie Review: John Q
"John Q." is about a man who learns to take responsibility for his family by taking hostage an emergency room full of people. In some contexts such behavior might be considered, at the very least, anti-social, but this guy has been forced to deal with HMOs, so go, go, go!
Besides, John Q. Archibald, the father whose son is being denied a life-saving heart transplant operation, is played by Denzel Washington, an actor who has filled a career highlights reel with portrayals of men who stand tall against overwhelming adversity.
No question, Washington's good at this stuff: You buy him as an excuse-making, gritty factory worker; a warm, loving father; and, of course, a desperate hero. But making John Q. a hero isn't quite the best use of this movie's considerable resources.
Nick Cassevetes' previous films, the character-driven, independent-minded "She's So Lovely" and "Unhook the Stars," reflected the influence of his father, filmmaker John Cassevetes, but "John Q." is strictly workmanlike. So is the script, credited to James Kearns, though the movie feels like it was written by committee.
John, his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise of "Beloved") and 10-year-old son Mike (newcomer Daniel E. Smith) are the living embodiment of working-class frustration on Chicago's South Side (actually, Toronto). Denise's car has just been repossessed because John didn't make the payments, but given his shortened factory work hours and his inability to find another job, he feels like he's doing the best that he can.
Then disaster strikes: Mike, one of those lovably chipper movie kids, collapses and is diagnosed with an incurable heart condition. John assumes Mike is covered on his insurance plan but doesn't realize that his company has transferred policies from a PPO to an HMO that considers a heart transplant elective surgery.
"John Q." is at its best when it chronicles John's infuriating attempts to navigate through his employment and health care problems. Almost everyone can relate to the long lines, long phone on-hold periods, confusing forms, buck-passing workers and bureaucratic doublespeak that John encounters.
The movie's selling point, no doubt, is the assumption that viewers will share John's rage to such an extent that they'll be with him when he takes drastic measures. But when he does, "John Q." lets formula take over.
You can see the deck being stacked early on. The heart specialist who diagnoses Mike is played by Mr. Bedside Manner himself, James Woods, who tells the parents with typical bluntness, "Mike's heart is useless. He's going to need a transplant or he's going to die."
As John and Denise process this shocking news, the chief hospital administrator, aptly named Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche), coldly adds that they must accept that their son probably won't last much longer so they should make the ensuing days "a happy time."
While the parents try to figure out whether they have any chance of getting the money to pay for a heart transplant, the administrator looks at them with contempt while the doctor taps his fingers impatiently. The filmmakers must not trust their material if they can't allow the health care authority figures to have basic human reactions.
Once the emergency-room standoff begins, you feel like you've entered a "very special episode" of a not very special TV drama. The hostages are a compendium of types an oily, wife-abusing white ethnic (Shawn Hatosy); a wisecracking African-American hustler type (Eddie Griffin) who play out clumsy mini-dramas among themselves and debate HMOs more pedantically than the "West Wing" characters' special-episode discussion of terrorism.
Outside the hospital Robert Duvall, who played a cop trying to talk down an everyday guy who's snapped in "Falling Down" (1993), plays a cop trying to talk down a guy who's snapped. Ray Liotta is the police chief who's mostly worried about can you guess? politics, and there's also a slick-haired TV reporter primarily concerned about another shocker his hair and chances for a career-making scoop.
As you watch the gathering, cheering crowds and SWAT team efforts to get John Q., your mind wanders to every hostage drama you've ever seen or seen ads for. You half expect someone in the crowd to start chanting "Attica! Attica!" (a la the far superior "Dog Day Afternoon").
The performances particularly by Washington, Elise and Duvall keep you paying attention, but you tire of the movie jerking you around. At one point a doctor says Mike's blood pressure can't go below 70, and from then on Cassevetes keeps cutting to the monitor as it descends from 88 to 87 to 86 and so on. The melodramatic climaxes toward the end are as shameless as they are far-fetched.
The real shame is that "John Q." punts on a potent topic. HMOs and various bureaucracies might very well push someone past the breaking point, and a thoughtful movie could provoke audiences to ponder when that character is justified in taking extreme action and when he has crossed some line.
But "John Q." is content merely to lionize its title character and exploit his anger all for easy sanctimony, formulaic thrills and a ham-fisted sermon on the need for national health insurance. Waste in the health care system is deplorable, but waste on the movie screen isn't so great either.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes; written by James Kearns; photographed by Rogier Stoffers; edited by Dede Allen; production designed by Stefania Celia; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by Mark Burg, Oren Koules. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Feb. 15. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, language, intense thematic elements).
John Q. Archibald Denzel Washington
Grimes Robert Duvall
Dr. Turner James Woods
Rebecca Payne Anne Heche
Monroe Ray Liotta
Denise Archibald Kimberly Elise