John Q

Stars:   Denzel Washington, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin, Shawn Hatosy, Ray Liotta, and Daniel E. Smith
Director:   Nick Cassavetes
Writer:   James Kearns

America’s managed health care system is justifiably indicted as uncaring and brutal in this by-the-numbers yet highly sympathetic tale of one man’s struggle to see that it does right by him. If you’re rich, you have a chance to live; if not, then it’s ‘take a hike’, you’re out of luck. That’s the message that rings loud and clear from the get-go. Too bad it’s a message that will go unheard by the powers that be.

John Q. (as in “John Q. Public”, any man and every man) Archibald (Washington) is a decent and devoted husband and father whose luck has been going downhill. His job has been downgraded from full to part time, his debts are piling up and the family car gets repossessed. Then comes the awful discovery that his beloved son Mike (Daniel E. Smith ) has a defective heart that’s gone unnoticed for years. John is pushed to the brink, taking a cold-hearted cardiologist and a hospital’s emergency room personnel hostage after he’s told that Mike won’t get a needed heart transplant because his insurance won’t cover the pricey surgery and all avenues for financial aid have been exhausted.

Denzel Washington is excellent as always, portraying John Q. with great power, compassion and conviction. And particularly effective is Kimberly Elise as his wife Denise who is so frustrated by events that she helps push John to take action, although what he ends up doing is far from anything she would ever have imagined. The child playing Mike is quite good and the threesome successfully present themselves as a tight and loving family. Under strain from financial troubles, the emotions that surface are believable in every sense. These performances make the film. And the direction is good with sharp pacing to keep up the intensity of events.

It’s failures are a predictable script, including an opening scene that foreshadows the ending to alert viewers, and a supporting cast of stereotypes. Anne Heche’s hospital administrator, Rebecca Payne, goes from cold-blooded and uncaring to suddenly sympathetic in the blink of one manufactured teardrop as she watches the hospital standoff on a TV monitor. Don’t buy it. James Woods plays cardiologist Dr. Turner whose character fares a little better as the action heats up. Robert Duvall plays Lt. Frank Grimes, a veteran hostage negotiator at ridiculous odds with Ray Liotta’s media hungry Police Chief Monroe. Then there’s the overly-groomed maverick TV reporter hustling to get the good story at any cost while a little too concerned about his hair. You’ve seen his type a million times before and it no longer serves as comic or any other kind of relief.

The action in the emergency room and the characters there, although somewhat typical, play out well, with occasional humor that fits. Here we have an overweight security guard (Eddie Griffin), a snobby rich kid (Shawn Hatosy) and his battered girlfriend, a Latino woman with a sick infant, an irreverent black guy with an injured hand, a pregnant woman and her husband, a very young doctor, a couple of nurses, and good old Doc Turner. Just about every one of them agrees that the system stinks (well not Doc Turner) but they also try to convince John that he’s in for big trouble. It’s a heavy-handed message movie. I think John Q himself said it best …. ‘you get sick, you get help’. The message gets drilled home even more at the end by using real people speaking in public about the dismal state of health care in the United States. We get it. But will “they”?

Lotta says: Good direction, good acting, so-so script. If you opt to see the movie and get angry at the system, make sure you write your congressmen and spit at a few HMOs along the way to mailing your letters.

Reviewed 2/15/02