When I go to a movie, I like to see something on the screen that I haven't ever seen before. I might not even like it that much, but I'd rather watch a film I'm not crazy about that at least feels fresh than one that's well done and fine and basically watchable but feels all-too-familiar and already worn out. Patch Adams features Robin Williams as the idealistic iconoclast who's bucking the system and inspires others to buck the system. Williams perfected this a long time ago in Dead Poets Society, where his idealistic prep school teacher had his young charges following the words of Thoreau in Walden--living deliberately, sucking the marrow out of life. Williams did a great reprise of basically this same role in Good Will Hunting, another good seize-the-day flick. Elsewhere in Walden, Thoreau suggests that the general mass of people really like to see something they've seen before rather than something new, which explains Patch Adams, yet another variation on the same theme. Patch, suicidal (this is never explained), commits himself to a mental hospital. As the year is 1969, the place is scary, like the hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There he experiences indifferent, uncaring treatment, but he's not so depressed that he doesn't notice his own offbeat humor (produced largely to entertain himself amid the lunacy) improving the demeanor of his fellow patients. So he checks himself out of the hospital and into medical school. This is, they say, based on a true story. There he encounters the medical establishment that produces the cold-hearted doctors he met in the hospital, so he sets out to win over the hearts and minds of the staff of the local teaching hospital, med school deans and, most important, the other students: his nerdy pal Truman (Daniel London) and the beautiful, studious Carin (Monica Potter). He inspires his fellow medical students to treat the patient, not the disease, but also to look inside themselves to address the reasons they wanted to become doctors in the first place. The story has the predictable movement: They will turn against him; they will all turn back. (You saw Dead Poets Society, didn't you?) People who find Williams entertaining in general will find him up to par, but Patch Adams (with its "hope is bursting out all over" soundtrack, continuity problems, and a seemingly anachronistic telephone answering machine) seems rather hastily put together.
When we see Robin Williams on the screen, we know him to be a package of comic anarchy, even though it isn't necessarily coming through. Invariably, his appearances on talk shows to promote his films are much less constrained than his acting work, where he's trapped by the need to follow the script. The blocking, the other actors, the very fact of the frame of the screen all seem to make him melancholy--which gives his characters the sense of a tragic past. It's as if the whole enterprise of making movies oppresses Robin Williams. There's an episode of "Mork and Mindy" where Williams grabs an egg and yells "Fly! Be Free!" and throws it up in the air; the egg falls to the ground and breaks, of course. In his films, Williams encourages others to break boundaries; but sometimes, he's the one who needs to be set free.