I Am Sam Syndrome” might be an appropriate name for the process whereby the best intentions sometimes lead actors and directors to indulge in their worst artistic impulses. John Q‘s cast is the actorly equivalent of an all-star benefit concert, and director Nick Cassavetes has done interesting work in the past. But even with 10 months left in the year, 2002 will be hard-pressed to outdo John Q in terms of unbearability. Playing a character who practically glows with virtue, Denzel Washington stars as a salt-of-the-earth Chicago-area factory worker already struggling through the hard economic times indicated by George W. Bush speech footage. Then Washington’s son (Daniel E. Smith) is rushed to the hospital with a previously undiagnosed heart condition. After learning that Smith needs a heart transplant to live, a smug doctor (James Woods) and a hospital executive (Anne Heche, who might as well have worn a T-shirt with the word “heartless” stenciled on it) inform Washington and wife Kimberly Elise of their options: Either find a way to insure a $250,000 payment, or take Smith home to die. (“You might want to make it a happy time,” Heche suggests.) Refusing to take “no” for an answer, Washington takes Woods and his hospital hostage, forcing them at gunpoint to guarantee a place on the transplant list. Much speechifying follows, with Washington’s rhetoric growing more impassioned after he’s given a foil in the form of hostage negotiator Robert Duvall, who virtually reprises his role from Falling Down. Cassavetes’ connection to the subject is apparently personal, but his film exemplifies all the pitfalls of Western Union-style filmmaking, right up to the scene where an ER-full of one-dimensional characters engage in a debate on the dangers of HMOs and contemporary health care. (Sample line from Highway To Heaven vet James Kearns’ screenplay: “More like the hypocritical oath.”) For all the facts spouted, John Q plays less like an exposé than a piece of exploitation, its clear divide between good and evil allowing no breathing room for real drama. By the time it arrives at a climax involving a race against time, rapidly dropping vital signs, and a noble sacrifice, the word “manipulative” hardly suffices.

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