March 8, 2002

Just Another Dear John

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After his Academy Award-nominated bad-guy turn in Training Day, Denzel Washington returns to the big screen in the Nick Cassavetes’ drama John Q., playing his usual “noble guy with a nice smile” role. Yet it is this ‘nice’-ness that the film evokes from Washington and all its usually talented actors that erase whatever credibility the film could have had and replace it with a sermon on the trials of the modern American.

Washington is American-man, John Quincy Archibald, a lowly factory worker who only nets $18,000 a year to support his young family in the semi-rural Chicago outback. John’s wife, Denise, played by a youthful Kimberly Elise and their young son, Michael, played by Daniel Smith, play word games during long drives in John’s pick-up truck. They sing when they go to church. They could be the most wholesome on-screen family since, well, ever.

During one of their sweet-as-apple-pie activities, John and Denise cheer on Michael during a Little League game (of course he plays Little League!) and as the boy goes to take second base he falls and his eyes roll back in his head. From this scene on, all the shortcomings of John Archibald’s meager existence catch up with him and he realizes the world does not care if he has more American values than the Bible belt.

Little Michael is rushed to the hospital, where the doctors are curiously more attractive, speak as if anyone can understand medical jargon and inform the grieving family that their son will die if he isn’t placed on the organ donor waiting list and have a $250,000 heart transplant. John’s insurance doesn’t cover it, the government’s no help and he doesn’t have $250,000 to spend.

Anne Heche is perfect as quiet hospital director Rebecca Payne, who doesn’t care about his pleading; her hospital doesn’t do any work for free and his son will not be placed on the list unless he pays. What do you mean that family values won’t pay for a $250,000 heart transplant?

John decides not to take “no” for an answer and does the next best thing: he takes the hospital emergency room hostage until his son gets placed on the donor list. However, instead of trying to overpower the the roly-poly John, most of the hostages instead come to revere him as a family man, even while he’s threatening their lives with a gun.

Like clockwork, police officers, fans, and media vultures arrive to fill out the cast and skate through their lines as if they were practicing for some other film. Talented actors, such as the perennially-slimy James Woods, Ray Liotta, Eddie Griffin, Shawn Hatosy, Robert Duvall and a host of others unfortunately cannot rise above Cassavetes’ anxious direction and a script which tries to be too much, too fast.

There are signs of life in this dark and depressing drama-commentary on life: witnessing Liotta and Duvall pitch a hissy-fit during a sub-plot is definitely one of them. Although the film has the best intentions, it plays with the truth too much and is too predictable to rise to the levels which it is desperately aiming.

If you take any of the moral lessons thrown at you in John Q. away with you, learn that American values will only get you so far. You’ll have to use guns to finish the job.

Archived article by Carlos Perkins