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Shamelessly manipulative, "John Q." thinks its socially conscious message more than makes up for its flaws.

Pushing Our Buttons

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While many would argue that any work of art is personal propaganda from its creator, when it comes to the cinema, rare is the movie that blatantly serves up a socially conscious message as mainstream, multiplex entertainment. The new drama "John Q." not only does just that, its script reads like a shopping list for social reform.

Sadly, no matter where a viewer stands on any of the issues spotlighted in "John Q.," all but a fanatical few will agree the movie is a fevered melodrama where resorting to violence — hostage-taking, specifically — seems the natural thing to do. The "only" thing to do. Such a dramatic, last-ditch solution wouldn't be so bad if the individual nobly accepted responsibility for his or her action and the punishment the law demands. But like other last-resort dramas, "John Q." is crafted to make us cheer for and sympathize with a character who not only breaks the law, but puts the lives of many others in jeopardy.

At the same time, that's what movies do best — getting us to see the other side, to feel another's pain and suffering in the safety of a darkened theater, to experience things we might only dream about. However, there's something morally bankrupt about a movie that wraps its action in social consciousness and yet violates its own message for dramatic expediency. "John Q.'s" filmmakers not only want to have it both ways, they seem oblivious to our right as viewers to question the quality of the message they deliver.

In other words, "John Q." may have its liberal heart in the right place, but its script boils over with melodrama; extreme situations played out by characters drawn in the most basic terms of black-and-white, literally and figuratively; and lifts its central premise straight from a far-better movie, "Dog Day Afternoon."

Meet John Q. Archibald, a dedicated working man whose factory job has been downsized to the point where he can't make ends meet. As portrayed by Denzel Washington, he's an average Joe with a nobility that comes from persevering in a society and world stacked against the "have-nots." He's a fine, loving husband to his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), and a terrific dad to 10-year-old Mike (irrepressibly played by Daniel E. Smith), a precocious tyke who yearns for rippling muscles. As we're told and shown, John Q.'s only evident flaw is a tendency toward inaction.

But that changes when his son collapses while rounding the bases during a Little League game. Curiously hard-bitten cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods) and evil hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) — and we know she's evil with a capital "E" because she's the only character who smokes! — give John and Denise the bad news: Mike needs a heart transplant to survive. Because John's health insurance doesn't cover such expensive surgeries (around $250,000), the hospital requires a cash payment of one-third the total just to put a patient on the transplant list.

After hitting a brick wall with his employer, his HMO and selling everything his family owns, John recognizes that desperate times call for desperate measures. Following through on a promise to makes sure his son gets a heart transplant if it's the last thing he does, John decides to hold the hospital's emergency room and staff hostage until his son is put on the top of the transplant waiting list.

With the rallying cry "From now on, free health care for everybody," John becomes something of a folk hero thanks to the drooling media. Enter old-school, police negotiator Frank Grimes (crusty Robert Duvall) and prima-donna police chief Monroe (Ray Liotta), who wants to just blow "the bad guy" away. At this point, when the tension should be building and our righteous indignation hitting the boiling point, the movie becomes a parody of every "little people" drama from the past. And this is when we in the audience start to lose our suspension of disbelief. Instead, all those nagging questions come forward: Why in the middle of this life-or-death crisis are John and the hospital staff sitting around cataloging the ills of managed care? Or where did John get that big gun? Wouldn't he have sold it already? Or more to the point, how can the filmmakers slam NAFTA when they obviously shot the movie in Toronto to save money?

Washington does a fine job as a father pushed to the edge, but by the time Patti LaBelle sings the inspirational "The Voice Inside My Heart," little matters. We've been beaten into submission.

"John Q." makes no bones about its ideological purpose; in fact, in case we missed the movie's point, there's a postscript montage with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Allred and, oddly, the late Ted Demme, expounding on the importance of universal health care. It should come as no surprise that "John Q.'s" script comes from playwright and TV-writer James ("Highway To Heaven") Kearns and that it was penned back in 1993 when health care was a hot topic in the Clinton White House. Almost a decade later, the issue is still relevant and provocative, but one would hope that the discussion had evolved into a more insightful stage than the knee-jerk, button-pushing response represented here.

Life lesson learned here? Medical insurance bad; "John Q."

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