[14 February 2002]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
After Collateral Damage, you might imagine that most every aggrieved father cliché has been unturned. But no. Here comes Nick Cassavetes’ anti-HMO manifesto, John Q, in which a guy who is actually named John Q (Archibald—at least the writers stopped short of actually naming him Public) battles the powers that be to save his young son’s life. “When people are sick,” he asserts, his gun aimed at the ER patients, doctors, and Rent-a-Cop he’s taken hostage, “They deserve a little help!”
Who would disagree? Well, okay, the obvious answer is all those politicians, administrators, insurance companies, and doctors whose resistance to any actual change in the current U.S. health care system allows the ridiculousness to go on. Unfortunately, John Q doesn’t presume that you see this obvious answer, and goes on to instruct you as to the evil of this system, with several dialogue explications and Arnoldish cracks (“The hospital’s under new management now!”) sprinkled amidst its one-note, ongoing crisis of a plot.
This crisis begins with a disease-of-the-weekish bang: hardworking, big-hearted John (Denzel Washington) and his virtuous, not-quite-infinitely patient wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) are watching their beautiful 6-year-old, Mikey (Daniel E. Smith), play baseball. Just as the kid is rounding to second, the camera takes a slightly low-angle view and fairly screeches into slow-motion: kid grabs chest, dust flies, kid’s eyes go up in his head, ka-bam, kid hits the dirt. Camera cuts to John, hurtling over the bleachers to the field. Seconds later, Mikey’s at the hospital and doctors are shaking their heads, pushing the hysterical parents outside the ER window, to watch the doctors attach the usual array of wires and needles and tubes to the child.
In your mind, this is a fiercely terrifying event. In John Q, it’s pretty silly. And it gets worse. To this point, you’ve seen that John and Denise are decent and dedicated working class folks, in a 10-minute set-up sequence that shows John’s car being repossessed, his failed effort to get a second job (because he’s “overqualified”), Denise (in her grocery clerk uniform) worrying about their finances, their beat pickup truck, and Flex Wheeler fan Mikey offering dad his saved-up allowance. After Mikey’s in the hospital, the movie piles on every anti-corporate cliché it can think of, including the one where Denise and John are herded into a humungo, icy-bluish conference room with their kid’s chest x-rays decorating the walls.
Across a table that’s about 10 feet wide, they face the prickly, cold-eyed hospital administrator, Rebecca Payne (played by the very scary Anne Heche), whose very name indicates the grief she will be inflicting on the Archibalds. And, in case you need more evidence that the hospital is a Den of Evil, Payne is accompanied by designer-suited, sycophantic heart surgeon Dr. Turner (played by King of the Weasels James Woods), whose name is similarly weighty, as he will be the first of the villains to change his thinking. As John looks on in horror, Payne and Turner announce that a heart transplant is Mikey’s only chance to live, but that he and Denise have no insurance and so, should just settle for a few more “quality of life” weeks with their boy. Denise collapses. John apologizes to the white folks for his display of distress.
Nasty. And there’s more. Then comes the series of scenes where John tries desperately to raise the necessary $250,000, or at least the $75,000 down payment that Ice Queen demands for their Cash Account. He sells the refrigerator, pickup truck, tv, etc., he passes the plate at church, he takes help from his best friends (David Thornton and Laura Harring, Naomi Watts’ girlfriend in Mulholland Drive, here with two lines, maybe). But still, the effort fails, as it must for the movie to push on to its Exacerbated Crisis. This occurs when Denise, who spends most of her time at increasingly feeble but ever-brave little Mikey’s bedside, learns that the hospital is releasing Mikey (due to nonpayment of bills). She calls John, and when he tells her, as he has before, that he’ll “take care of it,” she gets mad at him, her only available target: “Do something!”
Now quite up against it, John finds his own target. Lucky for him (and very unlucky for you), this Chicago hospital has a wholly retarded security system, so that he can load up a bunch of chains and locks and a gun in his backpack, enter the hospital, and take Turner hostage, along with several other people who happen to be in the waiting area. These include Latina with Baby (Martha Chaves), Barbie-Girlfriend Beater (Shawn Hatosy), Beaten Barbie-Girlfriend (Heather Wahlquist), Pregnant Couple (female Troy Beyer and male Troy Winbush), Inept But Very Nice Security Guard (Ethan Suplee), Young and Idealistic ER Doctor (Rock Sood), and oh yes, Funny Black Guy (Eddie Griffin). That’s just on the inside. Arrayed outside are the Plastic-Haired Reporter (Paul Johansson) and the cops, including Aging Negotiator (Robert Duvall), Egotistical Chief (Ray Liotta), Gopher Sergeant (Obba Babatunde), and Sniper (Frank “I’m With the Director” Cassavetes).
While you might think that this list of caricatures marks the limit of John Q‘s bad ideas, you would be wrong. The crowd that gathers outside becomes the Public whom John represents: this is especially touchy when the tv people get hold of the police video feed and start broadcasting the cops’ attempt to use a sniper to take John out. (That the cops apparently have no concept that this appears on live television is only one among many plot holes.) Rebecca Payne comes down to the crisis site—on her Day Off!—to calm Denise (how anyone would think Payne is the person to do this remains a mystery) and, eventually, when she’s moved hard enough, to track down a donor for Mikey.
Inside the hospital, the Young and Idealistic ER Doctor gets into a debate with Turner about medical industry-insurance company collusions (“The HMOs pay the doctors not to test… to save money!”). Turner has a little moment of rage (“I’ve heard all the bitching and moaning I can stand for one day!”), just before he’s called on to save a gunshot victim, rolled into the ER all bloody and you know, dying. Though Turner says he can’t do it (he’s a heart surgeon, Jim, not a doctor!), he performs brilliantly—or at least that’s what Young and Idealistic ER Doctor exclaims.
Really, all this back-and-forth just makes you want to shoot all of them. Where is Arnold when you need him?
Eventually, of course, the heart transplant must actually be performed. Can’t go through such agony and education and kill off the kid. Some question arises as to how this will occur. John offers to donate his own heart for Mikey (shades of Denzel’s very own, best-forgotten wacky romantic comedy, Heart Condition), but all the while, the film has been setting up for the miracle he’s praying for. Swinging into high weirdo gear, John Q takes you back and back again to the very first scene. This scene features a lovely young woman cruising along in her white Beemer on a mountain road. You see close-ups of her mouth, the rosary and crucifix on her rearview mirror, her hand, and of course, her donor bracelet, but you never see her face (so you don’t feel too too badly when she bites it). With “Ave Maria,” so rousing, on the soundtrack, she heads into slo-mo-land and slams her car into a truck and voila! she’s a donor. And so, you see, rich folks do give back to the community after all.
Though you see the girl smashed up at the start of the film, there remains a glimmer of doubt. Of course her blood type and all other specifics will match Mikey’s, but you are left to wonder whether her organs will harvested and shipped out fast enough to preclude John’s suicide. And the film lays on the crosscutting tension as thickly as it can. So maybe you’ll be surprised.
And still, after all this excess and strangeness, John Q absolutely outdoes itself in the closing moments, when, under the guise of promoting its populist hero, it comes up with what has to be the creepiest movie moment in recent memory. In a closing round-up of anti-HMO in-the-news rhetoric, including Hillary Clinton, Gloria Allred, and Bill Maher, Ted Demme appears, not even talking, but listening to Arianna Huffington sound off on Politically Incorrect. What is wrong with this picture?
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/john-q/