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Heart Sick

The manipulative John Q.; the silly Crossroads.

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A drama about ethics and values, John Q. has neither, but that won't stop you from blubbering like an idiot as a devoted father commits a most desperate act to save his dying son. Call it a crying shame.

A shame because the actors -- Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, among others -- are better than this. A shame because this film stoops to conquer in delivering its message in an ill-considered display of right versus might. And, while we're at it, a shame because of bad timing in that this heart-disease film has a cameo from the director Ted Demme, who recently died of a heart attack.

Washington, having just been nominated for an Oscar for his role as the brashly dangerous cop in Training Day, switches gears to be the humble John Q. Archibald. John is strictly working-class and plays by the rules. But obedience doesn't pay the bills, and John's on the receiving end of some nasty looks from his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) after the station wagon gets repossessed. She wants him to quit explaining and get something done for once. Luckily, John can still make his wife smile; all it takes is goofing around with son Michael (Daniel E. Smith), a sweet kid with dimples and the dream of becoming a bodybuilder.

Those smiles evaporate when in the midst of an ideal childhood moment -- stealing second during a Little League game -- Michael collapses. His heart is enormous and defective and days away from failing completely. His only hope is a transplant, and while John has insurance, he doesn't have enough to cover this.

So this man, who can't keep up with the payments on an old station wagon, sits face-to-face with his anti-doppelgänger, hospital administrator Rebbeca Payne (Heche) -- note the character's last name -- who tells John and his wife that she's very sorry but cash up front, please, and, if that doesn't work out, to make these last days with their son a "happy time."

John, the rule-follower, fills out all the right forms and sells all his possessions and begs and borrows and pleads with the insurance company to get enough money for a down payment for the surgery. He even goes to the media. But a day late and thousands of dollars short, his son is being released with no new heart and no future. His wife tells him to do something for once, and he does it. He gets a gun and puts it in the ribs of Dr. Turner (James Woods), the hospital's heart surgeon, a rule-follower too, who has shrugged off the Archibalds' desperation by saying he doesn't make the decisions. John marches Dr. Turner into the emergency room and takes hostage a motley crew that consists of a grossly obese security guard, a battered hussy and her abusive boyfriend, a couple on the verge of becoming parents, a sassy black man with nearly severed fingers, a wide-eyed nurse, and a couple of young (i.e., not jaded) doctors.

John Q. does a lot of finger-pointing. It's the big insurance companies looking at the bottom line rather than the cute kid with dimples and a thing for bodybuilding. It's the doctors who have the skills but not the will to defy management. It's the media too, which callously ignore John's story until it involves a gun. But it is not John, the guy with the gun (David did have a slingshot after all). Nope, John's a hero. It's an outrage and a kick to the audience's reason how deftly John wins over his hostages. He may be the one with the weapon, but the boyfriend who beats his girl and spews racial slurs trumps that. And so the young intern's tears from fear turn to tears of admiration. And that couple whose unborn child John's endangering, they've got his back too. Even the hostage negotiator, the grizzled Lt. Grimes (Duvall), can appreciate where John is coming from. In John Q., everyone loves the little guy. You will too, but that doesn't mean you have to like it. -- Susan Ellis

Sometimes you can tell how bad a movie will be just by its trailer. Then again, sometimes even a four-minute trailer is more compelling than the feature itself. Such is the case with Crossroads, Britney Spears' film debut.

If there were a specific category for movies like Crossroads, Blockbuster would call it "94-minute Mistakes" -- and Crossroads would share shelf space with Under a Cherry Moon, Dick Tracy, Hard to Hold, Disorderlies, and, of course, Glitter.

With this film Spears is clearly aiming for pop-icon status like Madonna, but she lands somewhere near Cyndi Lauper. (Anyone remember Vibes?) Crossroads' makers seem to underline their intentions by opening the movie with Spears singing along to Madonna's "Open Your Heart" and dancing under a huge Madonna poster. But instead of catching glimpses of the next material girl, viewers are more likely to find themselves desperately seeking an actress.

Spears plays Lucy, the good-girl valedictorian just dying to cut loose before starting college in the fall. In perhaps the film's saddest (and most convincing) scene, Lucy tells her father, played by Dan Aykroyd, that she never got to be a normal teen, never got to hang out with the other kids or go to parties. For a second, it's not Lucy we're watching but Britney herself dying to lose her innocence. (Which she does an hour later to Ben, the male lead, in a very delicate cutaway scene.)

Lucy has lost touch with her childhood best friends -- Kit, an über-popular girl even by John Hughes standards, and Mimi, a tantalizing bit of pregnant trailer trash who is, hands down, the movie's saving grace. Mimi suggests that they get reacquainted on a road trip, though Kit and Lucy are unsure. Eventually they all gleefully hop into a '73 Buick convertible belonging to Ben, a total hottie none of them know anything about except that he served time in jail, possibly for murder. With all the surprise of an after-school special, the kids weave their way from rural Georgia to Los Angeles for an anticlimactic singing contest. Antics and drama ensue, and though Kit is teased for bringing four suitcases, apparently none contains a bra.

There are a few dewy moments when Spears' star power shows through -- when she cuts her eyes just right and for a brief moment you think she might be able to pull this acting thing off. But the only thing she consistently pulls off are her clothes, and frame by frame the film spirals into cliché after cliché. Rarely has the lightness of being been so unbearable.

-- Rebekah Gleaves


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