Saturday, November 22, 2008

I Think I Need a New Heart

Mulholland Drive began with a car crash, then inscribed the statuesque blankness of Laura Elena Harring's Rita with Hollywood dread; the new hostages-and-hankies drama John Q. also gets things rolling with automotive disaster, and when Harring materializes a few scenes later, the optimist may feel a certain dream-state tingle before she reverts to anonymity. What lingers is the dread. The movie is The Negotiator refashioned around Helen Hunt's "fucking HMOs!" outburst in As Good as It Gets, with Denzel Washington and a team of alpha males on hand to offset the hysterics, not to mention the Larry King Live-caliber discussions on the sorry state of medical coverage.

When economically beleaguered family man John Quincy Archibald (Washington) can't get his suddenly dying son, Mike, onto the heart-donor waiting list, he grabs a gun and locks down the ER. "This hospital's under new management now," he announces. "Free medical care for everybody." The hostages—including James Woods's transplant surgeon, a truth-to-power medical resident, a pregnant woman, and a soul brother—develop severe Stockholm syndrome, and as news spreads about what "John Q." represents, his implied last name forms a sea of support surrounding the wall of blue. (And when he vows, "I will not bury my son—my son will bury me," as police multiply outside, the line echoes journalist Peter Noel's immortal cover-line challenge in these pages: "If a cop kills my son, I will kill the cop.") The reiteration of Mike's blood type, B-positive, is hardly subliminal in its prescription for hard times.

After a sinuous, irresistible turn as Training Day's heart of darkness, Washington is in default dignified mode here. He capably embodies the hero's transformation from doughy dad to man of action, amid the movie's shameless button-pushing and cheap religious overlay. Though better acted than Extreme Measures (surgeon Hugh Grant discovers where spare parts really come from), and with a broader social vision than Untamed Heart (Christian Slater gets simian thumper, Marisa Tomei), John Q. represents a creative dead end for the organ-transplant movie, a genre that perhaps begins at the height of glory with Eyes Without a Face.

The Village Voice, 2/19/02