Health care is one of the most important issues around for Americans, and also one of more overlooked problems facing our country. "John Q" (IMDb listing) is the latest (and rare) motion picture to take a baby step, fictional look at the convoluted system. While the film features decent storytelling and acting, it lacks fundamental grace. But what it lacks in grace it makes up for in purpose.
John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington) is a hard working father facing difficult times financially with his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise, "Beloved") and son Mike (Daniel E. Smith). When Mike passes out during his little league game, John and Denise learn that Mike's heart is failing him, and a transplant is his only option. The cost of the operation: $250,000. John assumes his health insurance will cover the cost, but he learns that his coverage will not extend to this operation. Left without a chance to raise that type of money, a frustrated John takes the law into his own hands and violently assumes control of a hospital emergency room. His ransom demand? To get Mike's name at the top of a heart donor list before it's too late. His adversaries? A hospital administration executive (Anne Heche), a heart surgeon (James Woods), a hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall), and the media-whore police captain (Ray Liotta).
To watch and enjoy "John Q," you really must find a huge reserve of tolerance in your system. The film is a milestone in terms of addressing the health care issue, and the picture takes this opportunity to play to the rafters in terms of explaining its motivations very carefully. "John Q" is crude and often shamelessly over the top, yet the urgency of what it's saying outweighs the mistakes the film happens to make along the way. Director Nick Cassavetes ("She's So Lovely") achieves a nice balance between preaching to the masses and maintaining story flow, but often trips over his intentions in the pursuit of the message.
When the film settles down and begins its slow boil to the climax, it takes several minutes to sit down and spell out the facts of health care and the evil structures of HMOs. Fine and dandy, but Cassavetes stops his narrative to do this, thereby killing the considerable momentum the film had cooking. It comes down to spelling ideas out for the audience. While the topic is one that needs to be heard, I wished Cassavetes had used better judgment than to have his characters rattle off facts like an episode of "Politically Incorrect."
Also a source of frustration are the outlandish moments of audience pleasing interspersed throughout the film. See the battered girlfriend kick her boyfriend in the genitals! Watch as the arrogant police chief gets a little egg on his face! See the conceited heart surgeon be forced to work below his class! Again, all good ideas, but executed in a way that induces eye-rolling, not applause.
What does work in the picture is the way John never comes off as a superhero. It is the easy option for a film to make the main character a glowing human being, or at least one that can do no wrong. "John Q" creates an extraordinary level of frustration for John so that audiences can easily understand why he has chosen this drastic measure. "John Q" also eschews a "Dog Day Afternoon" relationship with the media and the crowds outside who have gathered to watch the hold up. John is a driven man, only taking this step to save his son. While there are tiny pieces of media satire present, most of this type of baggage that commonly clogs a hostage film has been left at the gate. "John Q" is the study of love at all costs, not how the media distorts the truth.
Especially coming off his robotic, though oddly lauded, work in "Training Day," Denzel Washington delivers what I feel is his best work in some time with "John Q." Washington, so normally associated with playing heroes and inflated personalities, must bring his typical fire and brimstone act down a few notches as his John character is from a blue collar background. John is a man beaten down by life, with only his son and wife to give him hope. Washington plays the character beautifully, never once betraying the role's meek origins. This is the role he should be winning awards for. It's a lovely performance that never begs for attention. That is a first for Denzel.
But whom am I to say? The audience I attended this film with clapped and cheered as John pursued his goals. They loved when the bad guys received their just desserts and there wasn't a dry eye in the house by the end. "John Q" is an audience picture if I ever saw one, and even if I was personally perturbed by the lack of subtlety on the part of the filmmakers, this subject is obviously long overdue for a movie. I can only respect a film that can get a rise out of the normally comatose public.
Filmfodder Grade: B