Two Tickets for: "John Q"
By Melisa Rauch and Paul Camarata
Scene Movie Critics
This week, Melissa Rauch (MR) and Paul Camarata (PC) bring you "John Q," a story about a hostage situation in which the really crazy people are the ones surrounding the guy with the gun. Yeah, we're talking to you Anne Heche — or should we say, Celestia?
MR: The premise of "John Q" is simple. A desperate father with an inadequate HMO policy will do anything to keep his dying child alive, in this case, taking a hospital emergency room hostage until the powers that be agree to give his son a heart transplant. The previews prepare viewers for some clichéd melodrama, plenty of schmaltzy taglines and a farfetched plot, but most, like myself, probably assumed that the gifted cast could pull it off anyway. So now I'm left to wonder how, with such talent involved, could this film have gone so wrong?
PC: It's called bad direction. "Q" cannot be taken seriously because director Nick Cassavetes takes a good premise and in moments that are rife with tension, drowns the drama in lame jokes from cartoonish characters. Cassavetes is a wild pitcher, whose imprecision is a direct result of over-consciously aiming when he should be instinctively throwing.
MR: From the film's opening sequence set to off-putting opera music that doesn't match the onscreen action, he never finds the correct tone to tell his story. These stylistic errors, however, nicely compliment the poor editing and implausible plot from which the film also suffers. For instance, the critical scene in which John single-handedly seizes control of the emergency room is jumpy and hard to follow. The lack of establishing shots and minimal verbal explanation make it impossible for the viewer to understand where John and his captives are in relation to the rest of the hospital, which presumably includes his family.
PC: Taking over an entire hospital shouldn't be as easy as chaining two doors and getting an obese rent-a-cop to shut down the elevator. Most hospitals are like mini-cities, with a network of corridors, exits, back-up power supplies and insufficient parking. Except for Cassavetes Memorial, which has all the complexity of a Lego lemonade stand.
MR: We could spend all day nit-picking the logistical blunders; let's turn to the thematic problems. The injustices of U.S. privatized health-care seems to provide more than enough fodder for dramatic rhetoric and social commentary (which the film takes advantage of), yet Cassavetes feels it necessary to comment on every social ill currently plaguing the country. The filler scenes where John and his hostages wax philosophic about all these problems are particularly annoying. The screenwriter, John Kearn, is largely to blame for this overall failure.
PC: Cassavetes may not have written the sappy outbursts and divergent ideological diatribes that pop up throughout the dialogue, but he certainly allowed them to make the final cut. About the only thing that Cassavetes did capably was keep race out of the issue. The trials of a black family against the evil American bureaucratic infrastructure are always going to have the whiff of subliminal racism, but Washington's John Archibald never seems racially motivated. The Archibalds' best friends are white; they worship with whites; John is turned down for a second job by a black man, pursued by a black policeman and holds both blacks and whites among the hostages. The race card is about the only one Cassavetes leaves in the deck by the movie's end.
MR: I don't know about that. Maybe he didn't play the card, but he certainly flashed it a little. He keeps the minor characters racially balanced in both positive and negative lights, but it seems like he purposely did that to blur the situation and make it OK that all the real villains of the film are rich, privileged whites.
PC: Yes, the different races are there, but their characters are otherwise so stock that any implication is never really fulfilled. They're bland enough, in fact, that Washington and Liotta could arguably swap roles without drastically altering the plot.
MR: Please. Denzel is a well-respected actor. Liotta has become a complete caricature of the presence he once commanded as an actor. His recent acting choices, most notably his role in "Hannibal" and his pitiable guest appearances on "Just Shoot Me," have turned him into a Hollywood joke.
PC: What you fail to acknowledge, Mel, in a glaring injustice to the artist and the man, is his contribution to the pantheon of phraseology. The quip, "Yeah, he had that Ray Liotta look in his eye," is the stuff of eulogies and tombstones. There's a reason that all they ever ask him to do is be a pompous, impulsive, cackling quasi-lunatic who throws around the term "ball-breaker:" because no one in Hollywood does it better.
MR: Well since you're in the mood to defend casting decisions, riddle me this: Why did they cast Gary Coleman as John Q's son?
PC: That wasn't Gary Coleman, Mel. It was Webster.
MR: Au contraire. You've mixed up your diminutive, adopted '80s TV children. Little Mikey Archibald (Daniel E. Smith) is the spitting image of Coleman, star of "Different Strokes." I kept expecting him to say "What you talking `bout John Q?" Despite this distraction, the kid actually does some of the better acting in the movie. With a cast that features Washington, Robert Duvall and James Woods, that's pretty pathetic.
PC: I went in expecting Denzel to pull one of his "pick-up-Plymouth-Rock-and-chuck-it" routines, but he never approached that fury. He's the headliner among these titans but still came out looking half-baked.
MR: I thought Washington actually did a decent job of mixing subdued determination and fierce outrage. He's great at playing the everyman driven to extraordinary measures. He is believable in his desperation to save his son and his portrayal is as realistic as the flawed script allows. In my opinion, the biggest acting disappointment came from Duvall, who normally excels in the sharp, supporting character role. Rather than act, he chooses to mug for the camera worse than Jim Carrey. What would Don Corleone say?
PC: How about, "You're outta the family." As Lieutenant Frank Grimes, Duvall is supposed to sound like a grizzled Windy City cop but uses an inexplicable accent to deliver lines that are thin crust when they should be Chicago deep dish. His bickering is half-hearted, his concessions come easy and, for a supposed hostage negotiator expert of 35 years, he shows all the poise of a space monkey. Name value or not, all of the actors underachieve.
MR: They probably realized their movie had become a mess and just started phoning it in. I really wanted to like "John Q" and was willing to overlook a little implausibility and even accept some preaching in return for a gut-wrenching or heartwarming drama, of which "Q" is neither. It had the potential, but gets lost along the way.
PC: The images suggest a film about the boundaries in society: a hospital curtain; conflicting parties on opposite sides of tables and telephones; a reflection of a challenged and contemplative John; the cruel realities of crunching numbers. Cassavetes' agenda is clear and acceptable, at least until its subtle political undertones become loud and schizophrenic. The director uses good footage of George W. Bush, Senator Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher and even a background tune from rising rocker Pete Yorn, to anchor his piece in the immediate present. Were it not for his reckless direction–and the volatility of international politics since this film presumably went into production — "Q's" theme might actually raise the muck it was clearly intended to. (Melissa's rating: two out of five shamrocks; Paul's rating: three out of five shamrocks)
Mel and Paul remind you that guns don't kill people, but movies like this one might. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, February 21, 2002