Hunter Adams (Robin Williams) has been suicidally depressed. The pointlessness of his life has driven him to the brink, and he finally checks himself into a mental hospital. While there, he observes the detached soulessness of the medical staff, and discovers a purpose for his own life.
Sporting the new nickname, "Patch", he enrolls in med school. He desires nothing more than to connect with people in need, and to help them out as best as he can. To this end, he enlists the aid of fellow students, Carin (Monica Potter) and Truman (Daniel London) to bring humor and enjoyment into the lives of patients at the local hospital.
But, Patch's unique methods have their detractors. Patch's study-minded roommate Mitch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is frustrated with his anti-studious attitudes. But the biggest obstacle in Patch's way is Dean Walcott (Bob Gunton), who sees his actions as a challenge to the medical establishment, and is willing to prevent Patch from graduating in order to protect that establishment.
The movie, Patch Adams, is shamelessly manipulative. It trots out not just one, but a whole hospital full of sick kids and adults to elicit sympathy and tears from the audience, while Robin Williams' antic schtick counterbalances it with laughter. The ploy partially works: the film is slightly moving, and slightly amusing. But it might have been more so it the manipulation weren't so blatant as to be distracting. By the time the film reaches its final "clown salute", you're half-ready to strangle Robin Williams just to wrap it up!
The role of Patch Adams seems custom tailored for Robin Williams. First of all, he's given several moments for "improv" comedy (most of which are too awkwardly staged to be more than mildly amusing). Then, the role has some dramatic heft, as Patch Adams is coping with his own depression (as well as the depression of others). Plus, the role is brimming with plenty of touchy-feely "warm-and-fuzzies" (which Williams has lately specialized in delivering). And for the most part, Williams plays it well. However, "Patch Adams" is never fully realized as a character... it's always Robin Williams playing a doctor. He never disappears into the role.
The supporting cast is colorful, and mostly enjoyable to watch. The thorn in the works is Bob Gunton, whose Dean Walcott is so irrationally mean and dour that he seems like a movie device, rather than a real person.
All of this is not to say Patch Adams is a bad film. It is merely one that not only wears its heart on its sleeve, but has a prominent exoskeleton too. If you can overlook the obvious machinery churning away to produce the next emotion filled "moment", the film can be moving. It just requires a lot of concentration to ignore all of that grinding machinery.