CINEMA: ALSO SHOWING - Robin Williams: the doctor who makes us sick

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The Independent Culture
Patch Adams (12)

Tom Shadyac; 116 mins

Central Station (15)

Walter Salles; 110 mins

Saving Private Ryan (15)

Steven Spielberg; 170 mins

Schizopolis (no cert)

Steven Soderbergh; 96 mins

Four Little Girls (no cert)

Spike Lee; 114 mins

In Patch Adams, Robin Williams plays Hunter Doherty Adams, the real-life American doctor who founded the Gesundheit Institute near Washington DC in the mid-1970s. When Adams was a teenager, he spent time as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, where he picked up the name "Patch" and learnt to hate everything in medicine that was moderate and sensible and unflorid. Some years later he was accepted into medical school.

Adams did well academically while being loudly convinced that "laughter is the best medicine". He might wear a red nose on the wards (hence the film's release on Red Nose Day), and would crash examination rooms sprouting a flower from his stethoscope. His teachers hated him, but some of his ideas about "hedonic psychology" have since been integrated into medical practice (a Happiness Project here, a Smile Clinic there.)

All of this is admirable, as is the real-life Adams's continued rage over American health care being hog-tied to insurance companies. This film of his life is not admirable. It is packed with simplistic metaphor and sentimental absolutes - Patch encouraging patients to "share their dreams and fantasies", Patch trembling in the dock, Patch getting a standing ovation from the nurses - and features an ingratiating score that shows you what to feel and precisely when to feel it.

Patch Adams is set in the early 1970s, although you'd never believe it. There is no mention of that decade's foibles and prejudices and drama, no Vietnam anti-war demonstrations - just polyester and ugly crockery, and Crosby Stills and Nash, and the American equivalent of Morris Travellers. For a film about a radical, it is insular and emotionally deprived.

Worse is Williams's performance. He is one of Hollywood's blessed, frequently cast as the teacher with know-how - intense, troubled men, interested in the workings of people's minds. But there is nothing curious or foggy or ambiguous about Williams. People love him. Perhaps it's because they remember him as Mork from television's Mork and Mindy, infinitely alive with the sun on his teeth for the first time. Perhaps it's his odd, touchable body - that tough, short shape, concertina-ed so that his bottom is half way up his back, like Mr Tumnus in the Narnia stories. But for ages, Williams has been a fake. He delivers his lines like someone about to launch into a number from Carousel, and the more he does it, the more prizes he wins - Golden Globes, hugs. He emotes and emotes and emotes but never once investigates, making you want to burn into the scene and whisper "liar" into his ear. And yet, he utterly believes in his dishonesty - these are real tears he's crying, real gums in the smile, real hair on the beard.

The Oscar-nominated Brazilian film Central Station tells a cinematically familiar brand of story. An elderly former teacher (Fernanda Montenegro) earns a living writing letters for the illiterate in Rio's crowded Central Station. She secretly censors some of them, neglecting to send them if she feels they are pointless or tangled or asking too much or too little of the potential recipient. Montenegro meets a nine-year-old boy (Vinicius de Oliverira) whose mother dictates a letter to her errant husband and is killed moments later in the street. The boy is bowed and lost. Montenegro ignores him. Days later she takes him on, and reluctantly accompanies him on a journey across Brazil to find his father.

There is nothing remarkable about this plot. Many times we have seen a child showing a grown-up how to feel, and road movies always turn out to be both geographical and allegorical. But what makes Walter Salles's film is its engagement with poverty, which hovers over the narrative like a great gloved hand. He has the pair full of bravura and pride, eyeing fat sandwiches in road-side cafes. He has the child drinking delicious, precious cola, and then illegally stuffing sausages and cheap cheese down his out-sized shorts.

Stung with hunger, Montenegro's face is crumpled but geometric, exhausted but full of specific yearning. It's a face that never commands, but requests. Salles's Brazil is hysterical with Catholicism - there are pageants and prayers and icons everywhere - and this gives the film a terrific feeling of suspicion and peering.

But undoubtedly, it's the performances that have made Central Station such a success. Oscar-nominated Montenegro (a star in her country) is superb as the truculent, tragic Dora, and Oliverira never once gives into the fragile-cheek acting popular in child performers. Even through he's a little, tanned, freckled boy, he is eerily mindful of the French actress Juliette Binoche, with her wan calm and fire-storm eyes, and the way she grabs you with an intimate kind of absence.

Saving Private Ryan is re-released this week. It's up against Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line for Best Film at the Oscars, and with the latter doing the rounds, I suppose the distributors felt keen to establish Spielberg's as the better war film. But it's virtually impossible to compare the two - Ryan is a Boy's Own strip compared to the esoteric, contemplative, grieving Thin Red Line. But Saving Private Ryan can be affecting, and its now-famous 20-minute opening sequence showing the D-Day landings, with men puking and weeping and staring amazed at their guts waiting casually in the surf, is a furious depiction of Wilfred Owen's "pity of war".

Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh's 1996 guerrilla project, headlines the Curzon Soho's season of unreleased US independent films. Soderbergh made it in 1996 with a group of friends, all miffed with commercial film-making practices (he then went on to make the hugely commercial Out of Sight). It's a balmy, sometimes very funny film, obsessed with industrial espionage, evangelism, and not noticing that your wife is having an affair with the dentist. The season also includes Spike Lee's 1998 documentary Four Little Girls, which examines a bombing in a Baptist chapel at the start of the American Civil Rights movement. It's affronted, informative, and well worth seeing.