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Film: Also Showing

Patch Adams Tom Shadyac (12) Central Station Walter Salles (15) Schizopolis Steven Soderbergh (18)
THERE ARE some films no one should have to sit through - not even a film critic. I'd been dreading Patch Adams ever since I saw the American promotional poster with its unbelievable tag-line ("Share the Laughter") and a red-nosed Robin Williams pulling one of his most ingratiating Mr Punch smiles. That Rolling Stone declared it the worst film of 1998 did nothing to allay my fears.

Can it be so bad? Williams plays Hunter Adams, a patient in a mental home who gets his nickname, "Patch", after he plugs a leak in another patient's coffee cup. His suicidal tendencies mysteriously cured, Patch becomes convinced that he can help people, and enrols at medical college, where his unconventional methods soon land him in trouble with the authorities. He believes, you see, that laughter is the best medicine, and so sneaks into a kids' cancer ward, puts on a red nose and soon has the whole room in a roar with his japery. The college dean is exasperated by him, his room-mate can't stand him, while the fellow student he's chasing (Monica Potter) thinks his "flighty theories of goodness" are pathetic and tiresome.

And, funnily enough, I understood just how they felt. The real Hunter Adams, on whose life the film is based, may well be a fantastic doctor and a wonderful human being, but it doesn't stop you grinding your teeth as the director, Tom Shadyac, encourages Williams to indulge in a self- righteous ecstasy of emotional terrorism. "What's wrong with a doctor being emotionally involved with a patient?" asks Patch, as if the thought had never occurred to any other doctor in history.

What's wrong, and indeed insulting, about the film is its vulgarisation of medical practice: either you're a jolly, life-loving, compassionate clown or else a steely, by-the-book stiff. As it wears on, you may begin to feel your sympathy shift towards the authorities, who at least deplore the condescension of Patch's smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you philosophy.

As for Robin Williams, I'm not sure what it's going to take for this man to return to acting, as opposed to simply crinkling his face and begging for the audience's compassion. I thought we'd seen the worst of him in What Dreams May Come, but his performance here is even more excruciating because he flips so glibly between lachrymosity and laughter, quoting Walt Whitman one minute and staging an elaborate hospital prank the next. Shadyac keeps cutting away to show patients and staff creasing up in mirth, driving home the point that this here is one funny guy. (What we never see him do, of course, is practise medicine - free spirits like Patch don't have to.) The prognosis isn't good: if Williams continues in this vein of neediness he may as well just turn up on his next movie with a placard saying "Lend me your tears". He should try getting over himself.

Walter Salles's Central Station arrives here with two Oscar nominations in tow, one for Best Foreign Language Film and one for the remarkable Fernanda Montenegro as Best Actress. She plays Dora, a retired schoolteacher who scrapes a living in Rio de Janeiro's central station writing letters for illiterate passers-by. Back home in her dingy apartment, she cackles over these desperate messages with her friend, ripping them up or tossing them into a drawer - she's privately appointed herself editor as well as amanuensis. One of the letters her friend urges her to keep was dictated by a woman to her absent husband; when the woman dies in a road accident, her nine-year-old boy Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira) is left behind to haunt the desolate and often violent precincts of the station.

Dora, who's been stewing in cheap booze and cynicism for years, surprises herself by taking the boy under her wing, and, bickering all the while, the pair take a bus in search of the father Josue has never seen. So begins an odd-couple road movie set against the cafes, truckstops and desert spaces of Brazil's north east. At times the journey looks utterly doomed, with Dora losing her money and then her patience with the boy. Yet somehow they struggle on, and an exasperated affection is slowly born between them.

While that will scarcely win marks for originality, the film none the less takes flight on two contrasting performances. Salles discovered the young Oliveira hustling as a shoeshine boy at Rio airport, and his combination of urchin innocence and cheekiness is very endearing. Montenegro, with her lined face and lank hair, suggests years of loneliness behind Dora's watchful gaze. Although Central Station is apparently concerned with finding a lost parent, it's really about an embittered old woman belatedly finding her humanity, and Montenegro inhabits the role with an unfaltering truthfulness. An Oscar is the least she deserves.

Of Schizopolis I could make neither head nor tail, which may have been its maker's intention. "All attempts at synopsising the film have ended in failure and hospitalisation", says the director, Steven Soderbergh, who himself stars as a middle-management executive whose own double is cuckolding him. The dialogue slips, for no discernible reason, in and out of Spanish, while a fog of absurdist comedy settles over all. The film has been on the shelf since 1996, and you can see why.

All films are on general release from tomorrow