RIORI Vol 3, Installment 90: Nick Cassavetes’ “John Q” (2002)



The Players…

Denzel Washington, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Robert Duvall and Ray Liotta, with Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin and Daniel E Smith.


The Story…

It’s a good thing that John has a solid job to pay all his bills. Too bad his hours were slashed at the plant.

It’s a good thing John has years of experience at his job to find something better to cover all those bills, as well as his family’s needs. Too bad he has too much experience, and other folks might need a job more than he does.

It’s a good thing that when John’s young son Mike fell prey to a serious heart condition, he’s sure as sh*t he’s got medical insurance to cover the kid’s treatment. Too bad it’s the wrong medical insurance, wrapped around paperwork that keeps Mike from getting said treatment.

It’s a good thing John knows some diplomacy, trying to negotiate with the hospital bigwigs about he can afford Mike’s heart transplant. Too bad it all falls on deaf ears, expenses, possible litigation and bureaucracy having a firm hold.

It’s a good thing John knows the way back to the ER and how to handle a gun…


The Rant…

I don’t like my job much. It’s a boring grind, mindless and my skills as a chef have gone to rust all for it. I have a good résumé, all the right references and a lot of my coworkers ask me this as much as I ask myself: “What are you doing working here?”

My answer is always the same, with no sniff of irony, “I need the health bennies.” Sure, there’s that Roth IRA plan waiting for me when my teeth become gums guaranteed by my place of employ, but in the here and now I have expensive meds to take and my kid has expensive meds to take and personal physicians don’t do barter, no matter how much jade I’ve hewn from the quarry.

You see, unless you toil in a restaurant with Emeril’s name hanging over the door (or any brandname operation), chances are as a cook you’re looking down the cold barrel of Medicare to help stave off the bleeding (so to speak) when you’re, well, bleeding. So forget the “so to speak” gibberish. It is spoken. If you do not have a salaried job (and sometimes if you do), American medical insurance takes a large chunk out of your paycheck. I have great coverage; it takes away a third of my earnings. I can safely say I can always afford to be sick. It’s the gas gauge in my car I keep an eye on every day. That and how much I have left in my phials.

Good medical insurance does indeed lend a feeling of security—no matter what deductions scream—but, yikes it sure is an expensive feeling. Especially when you consider your monthly budget, parsing out your remaining earnings on food, gas, phone bills, wi-fi service, pony rides, cigarettes and yer beloved TiVo recording all those future Game Of Throne eps your Netflix account is already streaming for you. At the same price. Papa John’s every night ain’t scratch neither.

Seriously though. Health insurance is vital to everyone in our country, in our world, but can cost a literal arm and leg to access it. Well, here in America anyway (I hear it’s tad simpler in Canada. And in Sweden. And in Israel), but I might start to digress. I recently had the joy of trying to update my health services for a corporate takeover. The business I started my job with lost their account and new bosses with their new ways of doing things began to roll in. Us workers under the old account were given the option to be hired by our place of employ proper, therefore offered the (limited) options of fresh health insurance under their rules. There was a meeting. Sorry I didn’t tell you. You get the memo?

One option was to use the company’s network insurance. Quite inexpensive, but limited. The network was small, and we could only get totally total coverage at one of their satellite operations. All three of them in my neck of the woods. I didn’t know how far their power truly reached, but it was decidedly not outside the neck of my woods. Namely, if I were to visit my sis out in California and got hit by a truck, I’d be way out of that neck. The price is right, but no thanks. And did you get the license number? Owie.

The other option was the outside provider. Not as cheap, but further reaching. But not as cheap. Not cheap. Far less cheaper than I was earning via the account I was hired under. How less cheap? Let’s put it this way: one third of my biweekly paychecks were raped and pillaged on the off chance that my daughter and I got raped and pillaged. It evened out overall with affording monthly meds, seeing doc for the sniffles and reconstruction surgery when my jaw got smacked by that mace. However it cost more for me to be on their plan, despite they offered the same coverage as my old plan did with the old account. And I still had to reapply. Ugh. Can we say paperwork? Try online form-filling. I actually hit a 404 error filling out the sh*t on the website, even following the instructions. It was all Greek to me. Really. An icon of Hippocrates blinked on the screen, giggling and flipping me off.

So here’s the deal: the other plan both winked at and guaranteed I definitely would get an uppercut with a mace sometime in my future. Maybe out in California sometime. There was a lot of gloom and doom that this plan would guarantee full coverage for…taking at least half my earnings with it. That meant a spike in my med costs, even more paperwork and no more pony rides. What to do, what to do?

I took the third option: kept my current plan outside of network and settled with just a third out of my wallet. And serious pills below the $20 range. It’s a Capital Blue company. Status quo. I f*cking know it works. It’s like American Express. Don’t leave home without it. Now I can visit sis in San Fran and afford treatment for that impending road rash.

But what a headache for it considering we might be dealing with matters of life and death down the line. Unfortunately for most American citizens, and despite my typical jocular bulls*t, getting decent health insurance under the circumstances I told would be a dream come true. My bitching about some paperwork was just that. It was an inconvenience and a matter of budget-tweaking. I have NO IDEA how much it costs to keep an HIV positive patient alive, but I’ll wager a lot. Maybe spent on prolonging a morphine-drip dream of seeing a sister in California. Some year, if they have one. Or merely a month. Bet their parents do. No vay-cay for them. Just crossed fingers and no cars in the garage attached to the family home with a triple mortgage. They have insurance, too. Still the debt keeps getting deeper.

Ever ask why? Maybe you shouldn’t.

I used to make this joke about why congress should ratify nationalized health care. This was before Obama took the horns, and kept taking the horns. I argued for national health care because hospitals could only make a profit on living patients. The ones that die get off scot free. This did not generate much chuckles. The thing about profit did. Hospitals are businesses. Their commodity is healing. Their product is sick people treated into well people. Their uptake is healing…and treatment. Especially treatment. All those pills and PT and lab work and concessions to the students and scalpels and jello and wings and all that folderol THAT’S where the money comes in. Insurance just scrapes the frost from the Chubby Hubby. Namely, you know how much a fresh MRI unit costs? No? Ever try to buy a Raptor stealth fighter jet? No? Exactly. BTW, treating HIV costs a lot more annually, ignoring meds.

Now let me tug on your coat about the government remora eels known as lobbyists. Despite the Obama Administration’s best plans, longview and intentions there was no freakin’ way Barack and Co would ever get nationalized health care ratified into law. The fact that Obamacare even got a foot in the legislative door was nothing short of a miracle. Why is that you ask? Well I’m no pundit, but I am a bit of an armchair politician, and I’ve been pretty ‘woke about why some things get passed through congress like poop through a goose and why other result in constipation.

History lesson: way back when Ulysses Grant was president, when he wrapped up work for the day he’d head on down to DC’s esteemed Willard Hotel for some brandy and cigars with friends. He’d hang out in hotel lobby to chill and forget about politics for the day, but some government types liked working off the clock. These folks were dubbed “lobbyists” reflecting their nerve to meet with the prez after hours, pushing their personal agendum and even buying drinks for Grant in hopes to curry favor as well as get him lit (which really didn’t require the rabble’s help).

There. Making a leap getting Grant sloshed was the midwife for today’s toadies influencing the president’s agenda with wads of money (gratis, of course so long as their backs are sufficiently scratched). Said money is more often than not promised by the lobbyist’s sponsors, eg: big business. That’s sort of an open secret here in our fading republic. The philosophy of our country has always been capitalism, and that philosophy informs business. And if some entity can find a way of influencing our government, their agenda can be far reaching. So much so that who provides your phone service, what fruit you buy and how Nintendo USA had the gall to leave out VIII of their classic Final Fantasy package for the Switch might’ve had something to do with a lobbyist’s slimy efforts. Who does Coca-Cola want as president? Who does Disney want a secretary of commerce? Who would Peapody Energy like to installed as the new secretary of the interior?

And who does Merck et al want to oversee the FDA?

Not who the politicians think are capable. And certainly not who voters may want.

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” That quote is attributed to Calvin Coolidge. You how, the president that more or less harbored in the Great Depression? Yeah, that was almost a century ago. And without that one third being garnished from your wages to pay for the sniffles you might end up greatly depressed, too. Thank Monsanto for that.

Good thing Pfizer has a pill for you. Lists for about $5000 a dose, but you privatized health insurance may cut that price in half. May.

So there’s your weekly dose of bile courtesy of yours truly. Don’t misunderstand me, and I do repeat, that chunk o’ change that gets taken out of paycheck every other week is welcome, if not vital. Meds are expensive, as are trips to the emergency room as well as just a simple physical at your family doctor. What I’ve been railing about for the past three days is why the shrugging necessity to petrify middle America’s tax bracket persists. It’s bad business, Cal, and encourages if not perpetuates a system that demands profit over human rights. Open question I know, and has only a glancing relevance to this week’s movie. But it’s been something I ask every time I have to open up an envelope with a little window in it and then do some fuzzy math over what I have to go without this week. Hopefully not the pony rides.

Oh yeah. Did I mention I work at a hospital…?


Bills, bills, bills. Flows in like the tide into the Archibald home, and it’s always a tidewater surge.

John (Washington) and Denise (Elise) have been feeling the pinch. John’s hours have been cut at the factory, and Denise got let go from her previous job to start a meagre one as a clerk at a supermarket. But these new developments don’t keep their spirits down. Sure, being under-empolyed bites—especially in the wallet—but they’re a tight knit family, and John puts on a brave face for their rambunctious son Mike (Smith). Through a set jaw John is quick to assure that everything’s gonna work out okay.

Life’s not that easy.

What would’ve been a picturesque scene for the Archibald’s turns into a parent’s worst nightmare. At Mike’s typical Little League game he crashes onto the baseline between second and third. This was no fall. John tears onto the field to find his son dazed, turning blue and unresponsive. Panic ensues.

After the ambulance races Mike to the ER, the diagnosis is less than optimistic. Esteemed cardiac surgeon Dr Raymond Turner (Woods) tells the Archibalds the worst. Mike’s heart is three times its normal size, forcing Mike’s body to work overtime. When Denise demands what’s that mean Dr Turner explains that Mike’s respiratory system has been taxed into cardiac failure. Unless gets a heart transplant and fast, Mike is never going to play baseball again. Or breathe.

Thank God John still has his health insurance with the factory. Too bad Mike’s crucial operation isn’t covered by his HMO. Denise has got a good plan waiting for her at the market, but she just started and it won’t kick in until the 90 day mark. Meanwhile bouncing between the hospital, seeking extra employment, wrangling with bureaucratic nonsense and not getting Mike on the organ recipient waiting list the Archibald’s son is wasting away.

So what does a dad do when his son’s life is in danger? What does he do when he’s gone through the correct channels to get the treatment he desperately needs? When all else fails on the side of decency what does one do?

He does the decent thing, but not necessarily the right thing.

Desperate times and all…


John Q is a message movie, and the message is as subtle as a flying mallet. It’s heavy-handed, the setup is on the nose, more than a bit preachy, a tad saccharine and when on the mark blood pumping but still plastic. Then again, such a sledgehammer approach might’ve primed a kickstart. But all was, all in all, a message movie. And such a movie often gets played like trying to cross a Laotian farm without stepping on a landmine: step cautiously, thine director, lest you get heist by your own petard.

I read that director Cassavetes along with his screenwriting partner based the script on events surrounding the director’s daughter (minus the whole taking the ER hostage thing, natch) who suffered from a congenital heart disease. Chances are that the director overdosed—so to speak—on hospital yin and insurance yang that got smeared all over a rather pedestrian final draft like a Pollock mural. Still, Q is still engaging, despite the subtle as neon speechifying the cast oozes at every turn. This is a message movie, and Cassavetes either had an axe to grind or a flare to launch. Both is my guess. His aim kinda sucked.

So what, you may ask, makes a good message movie? Well, IMHO, make the message unfold over the course of the story. Example? All The President’s Men. We know the story’s all about Nixon’s shadowy infiltration of the DNC. The message comes along as we follow the intrepid duo of unflappable journalists Woodward and Bernstein unravelling and exposing the crime.

In The Heat Of The Night might overtly be about racism, but it’s a police procedural first with the issue of race differences fleshing out the story (recall the scene when TIbbs slaps back and Sheriff Gillespie doesn’t know how to react?) There is a lot of examining racial prejudice in Heat, but it’s also about putting aside differences to find a common good. Gillespie didn’t make his appearance with guns blazing screaming, “I don’t trust no n*ggers!” He could’ve. It was implied, but (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein) it wasn’t there there.

And overall, Philadelphia was about prejudice, discrimination, Jason Robards’ rich vocals and injustice. Prejudice over AIDS victims. Discrimination against gays, Robards raising his hand to remind us all he co-starred in All The President’s Men and all that crap which leads to a victim getting picked by the system. Precious little inside the courtroom screams about homophobia, AIDS and whatnot. Courtrooms scene were key, yes, but at heart and even mentioned in the movie is to let Andy Beckett get his job back. None of these films slam you with the message front to back, and not all of them are subtle. But they let you breathe and put the pieces together yourself.

Ah, and speaking of Philadelphia, Denzel co-starred in that one as the slimy, ambulance-chaser who takes on Tom Hanks’ case. Washington’s been in a lot of message movies according to his CV. There was Philadelphia obviously. Malcolm X (for he was robbed of a Best Actor trinket), a movie smashing the erroneous conceit of the “white man’s burden.” The Seige that presaged the reactionary tactics of halting terrorist actions on the homefront. Flight plundered the dramatic up and downs—again, so to speak—of when one too many is one too many, despite the outcome of any action. And all of St Elsewhere.

So did Denzel take this role for the message? Well, he’s always been a dependable, entertaining actor. His charm and charisma always takes the audience in. Denzel is always a relatable actor, even against type. That’s his universal appeal.  he might’ve been showing a few threads on the seat of his actor/activist pants when he picked up his role as John. That guy’s a cipher; the voice of a million frustrated, frantic John Q’s as dad trying to perform the impossible for is child. You’ve heard folks clamor, “I’ll do anything for my baby!” As John, Denzel takes this to heart a hundred-fold. And comes off as a little frayed. There’s a palpable taste of going through the motions here, most likely invited by Cassavetes’ et al didactic script. But it is Denzel’s motions (as well as the rest of the stunning cast) that rise this affair a bit above a modern day, sorta prescient Dog Day Afternoon.

So speaking I enjoyed how fast John’s impulsive plan starts unravelling. It’s a reversed/reflection of the medical bureaucracy that he wrangled with earlier on in the movie. Those scenes were the only scenes that implicated future events, not spray painted with a red circle and a line through it.

I’ve shared my opinion of Denzel having a warm softie for a message movie. Don’t deny this, Denzel in Q is him as his Denzelious (that’s a word now). I’m not certain that Denzel is a sucker for a message movie, but if his CV is any indication, the man has something on his mind. And he is very good at getting behind that message, whatever it may be at a given movie (even this rather pedestrian affair). John is a passionate man, but not a pushover. As the story unfolds after little Mike gets the dire diagnosis, we see John jump through hoop after hoop, desperate to get his kid on the donor list. He is gradually ground down to desperation, and when he mounts his siege against the he comes across as almost, well, rational. You find yourself asking—and well behind John and his motive—well, what would I do?

I think this arises due to Denzel’s earnestness as an actor also. It’s easy to get behind his outwardly easygoing nature. And like with the Shakespearian trick of having tragedy following comedy as a narrative device, once Denzel disarms you he can roll in and start gnawing on the scenery. Earnestly, of course. For such an insane plot as has, you better be convinced that all is lost in order to stay interested. It helps with Denzel’s hangdog dragging you along.

It’s funny. Not shoving Denzel aside, has a killer cast. It’s almost wasted on this sometimes pedantic social commentary. Okay, is, well, okay. And stellar actors make with what they’ve been dealt the best/worst way possible: behave like canards. I mean, didn’t Duvall play this character already with Falling Down? The man’s got a great presence as well a prickly sense of humor but a little less bluster and speechifying would’ve been welcome. The same goes for the quirky Woods, the hammy Liotta, the slimy Heche, the smartass Griffin and the almost willowy Elise. All are good and all underused, feeling shoehorned into the message than introduced to the story. It’s a shame, and often jarring. But some light shines through the cracks here and there. That “simple” convo justified Liotta being in the film alone, as well as Duvall’s economical delivery of his lines. Barking, pointed but also human. That and we have Denzel, so all was not lost.

Okay, we’ve established too many times that Q is about as subtle as a hammer to a thumb. It’s all about the message, the message, the message. But for all its preachiness, the film delivers it in a compelling way. The pacing is perfect, no matter the context. It does deliver on drama (can’t lie, the third act had my heart pounding) and that feeling of the clock is ticking up against obstacle after obstacle as John’s mind races for a solution out of his mess which might be his undoing, as well as Mike’s. But on that same token gradually descends into formula, if not bathos. You start to see what’s coming not long after Denzel pulls the gun on Woods. It get broadcasted. In comes Duvall’s negotiating, Liotta’s swagger and the deus ex machina for little Mike from the cold open. It gets a sorta Law And Order feeling as it rolls along, procedural with only the cast keeping the center held. A well-paced PSA. It kinda worked.

In these our United States with its never-ending public health crisis, who’s ever thought to go to John’s extremes? Hell, who hasn’t? Denzel made the drama and mechanics palpable, but he and the cast were struggling against Not with, there’s a diff) the director/screenwriter’s preaching his word bureaucracy and state. Denzel and co might’ve been in it for the message, but got handed a lame duck. Too bad. Q was watchable, sometimes enjoyable but too often felt painted on.

Oh, and about that insurance story about me seeking a cure for the sniffles? Right. Turns out when the account turns over and I’m formally signed on, I’ll have to pore over massive amounts of emails directing me to website after website for full disclosure of tax records, criminal records, child abuse clearance, physical results, pony ride expenses and even more light years of hypertext. And I’ve been a registered conscript there for over two years. I know the president of the hospital personally. He knows I’ve never killed anyone. Yet.

Just send me another email, HR. I know where the ER is, and I ain’t sick.

*click-click*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. John Q was competent, had decent (albeit wooden) drama and made ya think a little. It was mediocre, but was buoyed by the great cast. As well as some wish-fulfilling, Maybe.


Stray Observations…

  • “Here we go.”
  • Heche’s niche was in sleaze. She never really realized this and therefore her career went aloha. As did Ellen.
  • “You may be overqualified, but we’ll keep your application on file.” Don’t let the door slam your ass on the way out, punk.
  • Pay phones?!?
  • “Please sit down.” Three of the ugliest word combos ever.
  • love James Woods. Did you know he has an 180+ IQ? Really! Ignore his résumé for a fart.
  • “Welfare? We both have jobs!” “That’s too bad.” And too real and often.
  • Saw the good doctor against that lit cross. Wanna bet his future?
  • “Don’t have it!”
  • Epidural. Another ugly word.
  • “I’ll buy ya a steak.”
  • This took me a lot of notes and many stray observations for how dense this film grew.
  • “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Next installment…

Matt Damon is The Informant! Wow! So?!?


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