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In 'John Q.,' Mistrust, Frenzy Are Part of the Prescription

Movie Review

In a rabble-rousing film, the formidable Denzel Washington plays a father in desperate search of care for his ailing son.

February 15, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"John Q." is an all-stops-out rabble-rouser that hurls a broadside at America's medical insurance crisis. It takes aim at the HMO hell that so many Americans have experienced firsthand and drives home its message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Yet all the while, it is building tension powerfully because at every turn it has the courage of its material and because it also reveals what it means to be a father and a husband in the fullest, most uncompromising sense of the words.

It doesn't hurt that the husband and father in question is played by Denzel Washington, fresh off his "Training Day" change-of-pace triumph and very much at the top of his considerable form.

Soon after the picture opens, a tow truck is hauling away a car from a neat, modest home in a suburban Chicago blue-collar neighborhood. Washington's John Quincy Archibauld is a factory worker who has been cut back to 20 hours a week.

Even though his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), has recently taken a grocery store job, he is having a real struggle making ends meet, unable to land a second job, as hard as he tries.

Despite the strain, the Archibaulds are a solid family, and John draws moral support from his co-workers, who are in the same boat, especially from his loyal best friend Jimmy Palumbo (David Thornton) and his wife, Gina ("Mulholland Drive's" Laura Harring). John and Denise are devoted to their only child, grade-schooler Michael (Daniel E. Smith). One Sunday, after church, as his parents are cheering him on from the bleachers, Michael suddenly collapses while playing baseball and is rushed to one of Chicago's finest hospitals.

Dr. Turner (James Woods), a top-notch but resolutely detached cardiologist, saves Michael's life--for now. As it turns out, Michael's heart is three times the size it should be, a condition that might well have gone undetected because HMO doctors overlooked it or refrained from revealing it.

Relieved that at least he has major medical coverage, John gets another shock: His employer, having reduced him from full-time to part-time status, has downgraded his insurance. Michael, therefore, has no coverage whatsoever, and the hospital's ice-cold administrator (Anne Heche) informs John and Denise that the heart transplant needed to save their son's life will cost $250,000 and that they will have to come up with $75,000 as down payment for her to put Michael on the donor list. At this moment the Archibaulds have just $1,000 in the bank. (In one of those awful coincidences that plague movies now and then, there is a TV clip of director Ted Demme, who died of heart failure several weeks ago; it is surprising that New Line hasn't excised it as a matter of taste.)

Director Nick Cassavetes and writer James Kearns, aided strongly by legendary editor Dede Allen, know exactly how to shape their story into a dramatic form that allows a raft of first-rate actors, including Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta, Eddie Griffin and Shawn Hatosy, to express it vividly. They balance protest with an equal concern for revealing John's character under extreme pressure, making bold use of foreshadowing, satire and suspense.

They also reveal the terrible vulnerability of America's working- and middle-class families in today's economy and, in doing so, make an important point, self-evident upon reflection but rarely if ever made in a movie: that it is no longer safe for ordinary people to pursue ordinary dreams and trust that our systems work.

"John Q." is unafraid to speak the plain truth: Money matters. Indeed, Kearns was inspired to write the script for "John Q.," which took nearly eight years to come to fruition, when he read a newspaper account of a heart transplant recipient who remarked. "If I wasn't rich, I'd be dead by now."

*

MPAA-rated: PG-13, for violence, language and intense thematic elements. Times guidelines: The film is too intense for small children.

'John Q.'

Denzel Washington...John Quincy Archibauld

Kimberly Elise...Denise Archibauld

Daniel E. Smith...Michael Archibauld

Robert Duvall...Frank Grimes

James Woods...Dr. Turner

Anne Heche...Rebecca Payne

Ray Liotta...Chief Monroe

A New Line Cinema presentation of a Burg/Koules production. Director Nick Cassavetes.

Producers Mark Burg, Oren Koules. Executive producers Michael De Luca, Richard Saperstein, Avram "Butch" Kaplan. Screenplay James Kearns. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. Editor Dede Allen. Music Aaron Zigman. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Production designer Stefania Cella. Art directors Thomas Carnegie, Elis Lam. Set decorator Clive Thomasson. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

In general release.

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