John Q is one of those movies you hate to trash. It is so well intentioned yet so poorly conceived that you almost want to give it a hug. This new DVD release stars Denzel Washington, fresh from his Oscar winning role in Training Day, as a father who is willing to go to extremes to ensure that his son gets a life saving operation. It is one of those movies that thinks it's important and wants to make a big statement, but the film is unable to support the weight of its own message.
John Q actually has a decent premise. Here is a man who loves his son so much that he is willing to do whatever is necessary to save him. The movie is also about the inherent flaws in the American medical insurance industry. These are nifty ideas that are scuttled by pedestrian directing and a horrible script. There is probably a great, gripping film that could address these ideas properly, but John Q is not that movie.
The first half of the film basically sets up the predicament that quickly escalates later on. John Q is protrayed by Washington as an ordinary but decent man who loves his family but is unable to provide for them. The scenes where he tries to appeal the decision of his insurance carrier and raise money for his son Michael's heart operation are actually painful in their honesty. You can practically feel the frustration suffered by John and his wife. However, once John takes matters into his own hands, things quickly degenerate into the worst kind of melodrama imagineable. John's kidnapper with a heart of gold is cliched and totally implausible. Watching this man who can not even defend himself in a job interview suddenly develop the nerve to pull this off stretches credulity to the limit. The outcome is also telegraphed and unsatisfying.
The actors hired for this film underline that big things were predicted; however, even they are unable to save the movie. Washington gives a workmanlike performance, running the gamut from nervous giggles to the depths of despair as the father pushed to the edge. He is as watchable as ever but this is not one of his more memorable roles. Anne Heche does not seem to be able to decide which role she is playing (I could try to be smart and say this seems to mirror the actress' real life romantic escapades, but I'll refrain). One minute she is a reptilian heavy, the next she is an advocate of the family. To say that Robert Duvall is an accomplished actor is a laughable understatement, but here he just sleepwalks through his role as the police hostage negotiator. He is supposed to initially be John's nemesis and then start to grudgingly sympathize with the character's dilemma, but it never comes across as natural or organic (if you want to see this kind of role played to perfection, check out Harvey Keitel in Ridley Scott's 1991 masterpiece Thelma & Louise, one of the best movies ever made in any genre). James Woods does his usual weasly thing and Ray Liotta has a cameo that doesn't even merit mention. Overall, John Q is not an artistic triumph.
Watching intelligent actors struggle with a stupid script is sometimes just too painful. While I sympathized with John's plight, the transition from concerned father to vigilante is unconvincing. The movie really rests on the shoulders of John's son Michael. We are supposed to believe that this kid is so adorable that his father would risk everything for him. The chemistry between father and son is just not strong enough in this movie to sell the premise. Director Cassavetes keeps things moving at a fairly decent clip, but the whole thing never really gets off the ground. John Q is a tolerable time waster but not much more.
John Q is one of those movies that completely misses its potential for dramatic fireworks. The movie's morality is also questionable. We are asked to root for a man who breaks the law and disregards the rights of other characters who are also in precarious situations. Is it okay in extreme circumstances to take matters into our own hands? If a law is unfair or unjust, do we have the right as citizens to interpret it as such and alter it to suit our own purposes? These are weighty questions and could make for a compelling film someday, but John Q misses the mark entirely.