'John Q.' picks an easy target and blasts it beyond all reason

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This week, Denzel Washington earned his fifth Oscar nomination, a record few actors today can match, for his crackerjack portrayal of a cackling rogue cop in "Training Day." Here, in the well-intentioned but overwrought "John Q.," his work is quieter, demonstrating a different skill: the ability to effortlessly rise above noise and melodrama.

The problems with "John Q.," a tale of a blue-collar father driven to desperate lengths to obtain a lifesaving operation for his young son, can be summed up in one character: a hospital administrator named Rebecca Payne, played by Anne Heche. (Weird casting, that. Would you want to have surgery at a hospital presided over by Anne Heche? Or, for that matter, would you choose James Woods for your heart surgeon?) As written, her character could freeze a latte.

"There's a limit to our generosity," says the aptly named Payne, explaining why the hospital will not cover young Mikey's surgery. Later, puffing on a cigarette, she observes, "People get sick. They die. That's the way it goes."

This woman represents all that John and his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), decent churchgoing people with good friends and kind hearts, must fight against. And so, the logic goes, it's understandable when John gets a gun and holds an emergency room hostage, causing an immediate media circus to ensue — because HMOs are bad.

Director Nick Cassavetes and screenwriter James Kearns go to great lengths to show us that John doesn't mean any harm. (I won't explain them here, as they're among the few plot points not spelled out in the ubiquitous "John Q." trailer.) But they've stacked the deck so much that the movie becomes absurd, and Aaron Zigman's wildly emotional score just adds to the chaos.

All that said, however, the film has some stirring moments, fueled by fine work from Washington, Elise (who was splendid in "Beloved" a few years back, but hasn't done much since) and young Daniel E. Smith. In the early scenes, they create a believably relaxed and affectionate family. Washington, in particular, lets us see the father's goofy adoration of his son — the flip side of his later determination to save the boy.

And there's no denying that Cassavetes and Kearns are tapping into resonant issues, in the health-insurance arena and elsewhere. Early in the film, John applies for a second job and is told, "You may be overqualified for the position. We'll keep your application on file." The audience at a recent screening laughed, loudly and bitterly.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

"John Q"

With Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise, Ray Liotta. Directed by Nick Cassavetes, from a screenplay by James Kearns. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, language and intense thematic elements. Several theaters.