“John Q.” is so earnest and well-meaning, and so stocked with talent, that you almost forget the sheer, ponderous awfulness of its script. Once you leave the theater and the charismatic, benign influence of Denzel Washington, you realize your goodwill has been horribly hijacked.
Taken hostage might be a good metaphor, given the scenario of this latest product from director Nick “I Should Have Known Better” Cassavetes.
Washington is John Quincy Archibald, a husband and father barely making ends meet, downsized to 20 hours a week at a factory and chasing after repossessed station wagons. His 9-year-old son Michael (Daniel E. Smith) seems to be a healthy loving child who plasters his room, in a dollop of heavy-handed symbolism, with posters of bodybuilders. He’s healthy, that is, until he collapses while trying to steal second base during a Little League game.
A heart transplant is in order, but even with cardiac surgeon Dr. Raymond Turner (James Woods) willing to waive his fee, the hospital isn’t about to grant freebies for $250,000 operations (with $75,000 cash up front). Without the money, says administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche), the child’s name won’t be on the donor list.
Despite years of paying premiums, Archibald’s part-time status means insufficient insurance, so he and his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), endure a succession of bureaucratic denials trying to get financial aid. Meanwhile, they solicit money from church donations, sell off belongings and pitch their story to a glossy anchorman. At the $20,000 mark, though, the hospital decides to send home his dying child. In desperation, Archibald takes Dr. Turner and the emergency room hostage.
Almost everyone can empathize with the frustrations of dealing with the health industry, but telling this kind of tale through film is difficult, if laudable. “John Q.,” however, reads like a script by farm-league writers for “The West Wing” and “Touched by an Angel.”
The film clumsily sets up the contrast of medical opportunities available to the wealthy and working class, but it pulls its punches and targets easy targets such as HMOs instead of taking on the economic and political system (which you can tell it aches to do).
Most cowardly, it defuses the inherent moral drama of a man threatening other people’s lives for his child by having Archibald somehow resolve or redeem his hostages’ own idiosyncratic problems. The Stockholm Syndrome is taken to excess here as all but one hostage hardly resent their lives being threatened. In fact, “John Q.” not only sidesteps this moral dilemma but, at the very onset, shows a “beautiful young woman” (thusly named in the credits) passing cars in her BMW on a two-lane highway. She ignores the solid line once too often and gets hit by a Mack truck.
Will a child of working-class parents get the wealthy heart? Does the beautiful young woman’s privileged status make her a worthy and less heart-wrenching – so to speak – sacrifice? When Archibald wears a Mack truck hat, is it a conspiracy? (Thankfully, the conspiracy clich is one of the few spared the audience.)
As a case study of what a good actor does with a distressingly bad script, however, “John Q.” proves to be a fascinating microcosm. Washington could emote subtlety in a Carrot Top long-distance phone service commercial, so his intense mastery is, as always, admirable to watch. Robert Duvall as the negotiator bullies through with the indifferent aplomb of a man who knows his presence is superfluous. Woods lets out his kinetic talent in irritated spurts of steam. As for Heche’s recent confessions of her multiple personalities, no wonder she faithfully sticks by her hardhearted character, even when it undergoes unlikely metamorphoses.
At a time when foreign policy overshadows domestic concerns, “John Q.” should have injected moral and medical discussions into the national dialogue. As it stands, it’s proof of how the Hollywood system fails.
Events editor Vera H-C Chan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 925-977-8428.