erik lundegaard


John Q (2002)

John Q isn't interested in merely tugging at your heart strings, it wants to rip them out by the roots. Which, given its subject matter, is a little sick.

Written by:
James Kearns

Directed by:
Nick Cassavetes

Denzel Washington
Robert Duvall
James Woods
Anne Heche
Eddie Griffin
Ray Liotta
Kimberly Elise
Shawn Hatosy
Daniel E. Smith
Laura Elena Harring

"This hospital's under new management!"

The film begins with John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington) and his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), watching George W. Bush on television attempting to identify with the common man. Essentially that's what Denzel is doing in this picture, with better, if still mixed, results. The trappings of a blue collar life are here — the car repossessed, the beer-drinking friends — but John is superdecent. He's working part-time not because of incompetence, but because so many factory jobs are flying south to Mexico. When he attempts to get another job — smiling while his best friend downplays his chances — he's told he's overqualified. Alcohol doesn't touch his lips. We never see him watch television. What is he doing with all his extra time? Who knows? Even the repossessed car is a second car, so he and his wife and son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith), are still able to all ride together in the front seat of the first car, playing games, and laughing as Mike imitates the poses of his favorite body builder. This is a conceit that Hollywood finds charming but in real life would wear thin quickly. One can imagine real parents telling Mike, "Hey, give the bodybuilder stuff a rest, will ya?" I wanted to say this, and I was only around the kid a few minutes.

Then tragedy: Mike collapses in the middle of a little league game, and his parents learn that their son has a defective heart; without a transplant, he'll die. The problem? Heart transplants are prohibitively expensive; and because John's employer recently changed to an HMO, and because he's only working part-time, he's not fully covered. The hospital demands $75,000 up front before they'll even put Mike's name on a donor list. We get a montage of John attempting to raise the money, but eventually time runs out, the hospital is about to release Mike, and Denise, a bothersome woman, demands that her husband do something. He does. He locks up the emergency room, holding the patients and doctors within hostage, until his son is put on the donor list.

The hostages are a veritable U.S. melting pot: a fat Latina and her sick baby, a black, pregnant couple, a streetwise black man, and an Italian and his girlfriend. I thought: how come no Asians? Then one arrives: a grocer, shot during a robbery. With the exception of the Italian, who's a crotch-grabbing woman-beater, they all come to admire John. In fact, when the Italian fights John, and John's gun goes flying into a corner, no one bothers to retrieve it. Apparently they're all quite content to remain hostages.

Outside, a power struggle occurs between the media-loving Police Chief Monroe (Ray Liotta) and Lt. Grimes (Robert Duvall). Monroe wants action; Grimes doesn't. He's more sympathetic to John's situation but offers no solutions. Meanwhile a vain, glib newsman intercedes, tapping into the police's video feed to broadcast an attempt, by a SWAT team member, to kill John — which of course turns John into a folk hero across the country. It's our own contradictory view of the media in one glop: Those awful newspeople; but, boy, do we watch what they give us.

The hospital administrator, Rebecca Payne, played icily by Anne Heche, refuses to give in to John's demands, with the not-illogical thought that if John wins then every nut across the nation will be taking hospitals hostage. But John comes up with his own bold solution: He'll kill himself, and his heart will be transplanted to his son's body.

In a 1970s film, this might have actually happened. In fact, in that cynical decade, John might have killed himself and his son still wouldn't have received the transplant. But we're far from the '70s now. The first images of the film are of a very attractive woman killed in a car crash, and we're simply waiting for her heart to arrive (as we often do with very attractive women) so that John's son can be saved. Rebecca Payne's earlier trepidations are apparently forgotten, as everyone does everything they can in order to save both John and his son. Afterwards, the boy survives, John receives a mild jail term, and everyone's happy. Everyone except the audience.

—February 17, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard