The rabble-rousing John Q is supposed to make us angry, but it only made me angry at the movie itself. The serious issue of health care — or, more precisely, the disgraceful state of it in America for those who can’t afford it — is exploited and squandered in a manipulative hostage drama wherein Denzel Washington, driven around the bend because he can’t afford the heart transplant his dying little boy desperately needs, brings a gun into the hospital and starts making demands. Never mind that there are other people in the emergency room (which he commandeers) who need medical attention and whose lives are put at risk. Never mind that the movie comes dangerously close to saying that the solution to a personal grievance is, well, terrorism, when you get right down to it.
No, we’re expected to ride right along with Denzel (playing an everyman factory worker cutely named John Q. Archibald) as he rages against the machine. I sympathize with his dilemma and his anger; you’d be hard put to find anyone who wouldn’t. But this man, who in a better movie might be drawn as a decent but deeply flawed and disturbed person, is shoved down our throats as a hero. John Q tries everything to get his boy onto the list for a heart donation, but the hospital (personified by Anne Heche in a performance that goes right past cold into Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9, until a key moment when she thaws out) tells him he needs to put up $75,000 of the $250,000 cost of the procedure. Washington makes John Q’s frustration — and single-minded drive to raise the money — palpable; he takes the premise far more seriously than it deserves.
What would you do if you were John Q (or Jane Q, named Denise here and played with moments of admirable directness by Kimberly Elise)? John Q doesn’t seem to think of picketing outside the hospital, a guaranteed public-relations nightmare that might embarrass the hospital into capitulating. No, he grabs a gun and resorts to threats, being a working-class black man, of course. I doubt that director Nick Cassavetes or screenwriter James Kearns were conscious of the racism and classism at the core of John Q, but it’s there anyway. The racism goes both ways, too: John’s antagonists, Heche and a diffident heart surgeon snippily played by James Woods, are lighted as if dipped in bleach. This is known as cross-manipulation.
Robert Duvall is on hand as a hostage negotiator, who immediately breaks Kevin Spacey’s first rule of said job in The Negotiator, telling John Q, “There’s no way in or out.” Ray Liotta, as a trigger-happy police chief, does an uninspired sequel to his Cro-Magnon FBI suit in Hannibal; Duvall’s own performance is a follow-up to his retiring cop in Falling Down — once again, Duvall, the bald-eagle Voice of Reason, has a monomaniacal nut with a gun to deal with. In the emergency room with John Q, there’s a sort of trash-movie Greek chorus of stereotypes, including a wife-beating Guido (Shawn Hatosy) and a comic-relief black guy (Eddie Griffin) who actually suggests something like “We need to get some fried chicken up in here.” Hell, make it a watermelon, go all the way with it.
Fortunately, a heart is on the way — from a donor recently deceased in a car crash, but we don’t feel too sorry for her, because we see from her car and its decor that she’s got moola. Meanwhile, John Q stands before a gathering crowd outside the hospital — it’s Denzel’s “Attica! Attica!” moment — and delivers the following wisdom, which I swear is reproduced here verbatim: “When someone gets sick, they deserve help! Sick! Help! Sick! Help!” So moved was I by this revelatory outburst that I now pass along some wisdom of my own: When a movie is bad, it deserves to be avoided! Bad! Avoid! Bad! Avoid!