starring Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Kimberly Elise, Eddie Griffin
screenplay by James Kearns
directed by Nick Cassavetes
by Walter Chaw John Q's (Denzel Washington) chosen nom de guerre is a tripartite signifier meant to evoke Kafka, Black Muslims, and the everyman ("John Q. Public"). It's the kind of import-laden affectation that almost always indicates a screenwriter in over his head. It is, in other words, only the first hint that John Q. is going to be the kind of populist bullshit to which Oprah Winfrey will inevitably devote an hour of her terrifying television show. According to the film, though, anyone even approaching the big O's income bracket is part of The Problem.
John Q's adorable boy Mike (Daniel E. Smith) loves body-builders, his daddy--any blue-collar hero powerless against HMOs, NAFTA, Medicaid and SSI, white dudes (represented by physicians and corpulent white men who only offer twenty bucks for a colour television set at a yard sale), bloodthirsty SWAT members, Ray Liotta, and devoted cardiologists (James Woods) who appear to do a good job. When little Mike comes down with a terminal case of a broken heart, the pitiless administration demands restitution for its troubles to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars--seventy-five grand for a down payment. What's John Q to do but crank up the R&B, call out the church-going factory workers, and sell the kitchen sink and truck (but not the gun--what are you, a Commie?) in a desperate music-video montage punctuated by the click-clack of a suspiciously expensive-looking adding machine. When all else fails and John Q's red-eyed shrew of a wife (Kimberly Elise) demands he do something, Q does the only sensible thing and takes the hospital's emergency room hostage. I don't think Thoreau had this in mind.
John Q. is terrible by any measure of quality--a late re-edit doesn't seem to have helped. Anne Heche as a chilly hospital administrator remains the only actress consistently upstaged by her nipples (leading to one of memory's more amusing continuity errors during an early conference-room scene), James Woods plays it down so much he's ordinary and stupid, and Robert Duvall (as grizzled cop Frank Grimes--"Simpsons" scholars be amused) phones it in. Denzel of the attitude of Christ has played variations of this single-tear-down-the-cheek/courageously-gritted-teeth role so many times he could do it posthumously. He should also reconsider his outrage at not receiving Oscars every year for the same performance he won for in Glory.
Unspeakably manipulative, far-fetched, irresponsible, and incompetent, Nick Cassavetes's John Q. is so ham-fisted and mawkish that it elicits more derisive belly laughs than disturbing epiphanies. The soundtrack is a horror of maudlin sentimentality from first-time (and hopefully last-time) composer Aaron Zigman (sharing time with misused Stevie Wonder songs), and the screenplay is a monstrously reprehensible worm-feast by first-time (and hopefully last-time) screenwriter James Kearns. It's a cinematic martyr's pose that surprises with its reticence to overtly play the race card (granted, Washington's very presence suggests the struggle against the omniscient thumb of The Man), contenting itself instead with being a working class "us vs. them" opera that leaves no heartstring untugged and no liberal cause unplundered. (It even has room for gun control, the barn-side of news media, and road rage under its PC rainbow.)
In the great tradition of such abominations as Patch Adams, John Q. finishes in a courtroom, equivocating at every turn: lessening Q's well-deserved prison sentence to an ironically paternal slap on the wrist; finding a solution to every impossible quandary; and manufacturing nobility in the feckless actions of the impulsive and the insane. Unlike its titular protagonist, John Q. takes no prisoners in its noisome quest to upset the status quo applecart, and it doesn't care what boldly moronic and criminally slothful perversions it represents along the way. Originally published: February 15, 2002.