What Dreams May Come
First screened and reviewed in Spring 1999
Director: Vincent Ward. Cast: Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max Von Sydow, Leona Chow, Lucinda Jenney, Jessica Brooks Grant, Josh Paddock. Screenplay: Ronald Bass (based on the novel by Richard Matheson).

Twitter Capsule: The effects merit a look; Sciorra's reliably good. But the script's patchy and the film wears out its welcome.

VOR:   Of interest primarily to effects-spotters. Even there, its influence seems larger on TV commercials than subsequent films. Ambitious but weirdly antique, almost immediately.

Photo © 1998 PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (c/o DVDBeaver.com)
Like a great, big, gangly mobile, Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come, consists of dazzlingly beautiful objects suspended from and connected by the slimmest and most tenuous of frames. The film's ripe saturation with vivid colors and dreamlike images lends it a unique visual character that was obviously the main intention of the project. Like other movies with an explicit focus on surface effects—this year's Dark City and Babe: Pig in the City both spring to mind—the story often gets lost amidst all the set-pieces and digitally aided pageantry. Ostensibly the film deals with the character of the afterlife and the pained, sometimes reckless choices made by people in mourning. The team behind this project, though, are content at several moments to shove aside such huge issues of life and death to show you a peacock leaping through the air or a city filled with floating angels. The images are very striking, but they are also interruptions. "Hey," you want to murmur, "weren't we just talking about something kind of heavy?"

Robin Williams clenches his jaw and squints his face into a smile four or five times in the first ten minutes of this picture. As we must all know by now, Wiliams has two modes of movie-acting. One method favors the Tasmanian-devil energy and gonzo comic spirit of The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam, or his voice-only work in Aladdin, the latter of which still probably counts as his best screen performance. Alongside those whirls of laughs and gimmicks, though, there is a more serious Robin, the one who plays doctors, psychiatrists, and teachers. While this second career occasionally produces impressive work (as in Awakenings) or works at least well enough to swipe a pat-on-the-back Oscar, Serious Robin all too often allows himself to be Treacly Robin, a bleeding-heart philosopher king who uses these roles to force hackneyed bits of "wisdom" down our throats. There's something really smarmy and off-putting about this second persona of his, twinkling his eyes and doling out modest grins as though he thinks that we in the audience can't wait to jump up in our chairs and deliver the "Oh captain, my captain" mumbo-jumbo to this saint among comics. The preview alone of Patch Adams makes clear that the film is Treacly Robin's field day, seizing that title from previous owner Dead Poets Society. I have avoided it like distemper.

What Dreams May Come, featuring Robin as Pediatrician, gives the man plenty of time to go teary and sappy, but three major factors save the picture, especially in its first hour, from spelling total doom. One is that Robin is a little more restrained than he sometimes gets with this Tears of a Clown stuff, though not for lack of opportunity. In the first five or six sequences of What Dreams May Come, Robin's Chris Nielsen meets cute with Annabella Sciorra's Anne while they are piloting different sailboats on a lake high in the Alps. They marry two scenes later, and with the revenues of his medical practice and her art gallery, the couple are able to afford one of those "only in the movies" modern mansions that come equipped with two smiling kids and a Dalmatian. Not ten minutes into the film, the kids die in a car crash. It's not long before Chris also meets his maker in another highway accident. Just to let you know that Sciorra is one cursed chiquita, we find out in a later flashback that even the Dalmatian died.

Anne, understandably, takes all of these events pretty hard, and now sits at home in her stern Louise Brooks haircut trying to paint landscapes and fantasy scenes that express her vision of her life without her family, or her imagining of what the afterlife might look like. Some are broodier than others, but either way, she'd have no trouble selling them as cover art for Enya CDs. Chris hangs around the apartment, the graveyard, and even his own funeral trying to let Anne know that he hasn't stopped watching over her. He ignores the advice of Albert, a glowing angel played by Cuba Gooding Jr., that only by leaving Anne alone will he diminish her palpable sense of loss, and thereby allow her grief to lessen.

If you think you've already seen the movie where a black spiritual medium helps a white guy nobly killed in a chance accident to assuage the pain of his living artist-wife... well, you have. What Dreams May Come lacks any arousing scenarios of pottery-as-foreplay, though. Worse, it fails to establish the metaphysical limits and felt experiences of the dead Chris, whereas Ghost clearly and succinctly outlined Patrick Swayze's capacities as a walking spirit. Swayze could walk through walls and follow the living without being seen. He could not at first move physical objects, but he could acquire that skill once he learned to concentrate and focus his disembodied energies. What Dreams May Come goes for a different vision of the afterlife that is less carefully described but gives the word "vision" a whole new meaning. Chris, accompanied by Albert, enters a limbo-world of his own imagining, which happens to be the verdant paradise portrayed in one of Anne's paintings. In fact, the world itself—which, Albert tells us, is composed according to Chris' own wishes of how the world should look and act—is made of "real" paint, so that impossibly vivid blossoms actually squirt and melt when gripped too hard, and Chris' footsteps squelch as the green grass beneath him smudges and bleeds.

All of these effects, though the special-effects trickery is fairly obvious on the small screen, are diverting enough that we do not mind as much as we should. They comprise Reason #2 why What Dreams May Come does not become the same-old fable of Robin as Crusader for Love and Feelings that we are by now so tired of (or at least I am). Ward and art director Eugenio Zanetti, preserving the more-is-more approach of his Oscar-winning work on Restoration, never tire of mounting new monuments to their own eye-popping notions of heaven, of hell, of the furthest reaches of one mind's eye. Meanwhile, Ward has the good sense to cut back every now and then to Sciorra, whose despair seems not to diminish as she writes angry inscriptions in her diary and destroys her own paintings shortly after completing them. Sciorra remains a dark and convincingly doleful presence throughout What Dreams May Come. Her interesting and fully human performance, refusing to go with the grain of lubricious fantasy and digital vanguards, is the third major ballast keeping the flim from toppling completely into New Age preciousness.

Unfortunately, the script's difficulty in establishing exactly how this afterlife world is constructed and how its appearances are able to change prefigures a general confusion in the picture about how life and death intersect, and to what degree dead souls are able or unable to reach each other. It does not reveal too much, I don't think, to say that Anne commits suicide halfway into the movie, unable to cope with the losses of her last five years of life. Chris hears the news from Albert, and he determines immediately that he must journey to Hell, where Annie has been sent as punishment for taking her own life. Both Albert and another spiritual guide played by Max von Sydow—a sly if overdetermined addition to the cast, having played Jesus and the Devil in his career, as well as Death's vigorous adversary in Bergman's The Seventh Seal—attempt to explain how Chris might win Annie back. Their accounts don't make much sense in themselves, and furthermore their descriptions do not seem to match very clearly.

In the last forty-five minutes, as Chris attempts to find and redeem his wife, What Dreams May Come gives itself over entirely to spectacle at the expense of story. Some of Ward's most powerful images appear in this portion of the movie, such as an Inferno-inspired mudfield paved with the gasping heads of immersed, miserable souls. Still, we are not quite sure how Chris is travelling from place to place. The movements of the film and the logic behind the plot seem increasingly arbitrary and hard to understand. The afterlife starts to seem alarmingly random and haphazard: in other words, the exact opposite of the film's original notion, where everything in Heaven or Hell appeared as a direct, organized reflection of what the dead soul consciously wishes to perceive around them. Von Sydow never looks quite sure what he is doing here, and Gooding, though his appearances grow less and less frequent as the film goes on, has none of the charm or appeal of his Oscar-winning work in Jerry Maguire, which surely got him this gig. I thought at the time that his Academy victory would prove rather flukish in an unremarkable career, and so far his post-Oscar offerings—mainly this film and 1997's As Good As It Gets—have further mystified my sense of from where that dreamy performance came.

The end of What Dreams May Come is its most shameless instance of starry-eyed, obscenely romantic "magic". In one way, this last-minute turn for the worse does not matter. The jumbledness of the script and the blandness of most of the characters have already made clear that the film only exists to dazzle the eye. Without question, despite regular slides into pure tackiness, What Dreams May Come has sufficiently fulfilled that ambition to keep the viewer interested. Still, what happened to moviemaking that didn't have to drop story and character to mount an engaging visual feast? Plenty of films have achieved this kind of balance. The counter-example most explicitly invited by What Dreams May Come is a simple, delightful film from Iran called Gabbeh, made in 1997. Many of the same effects are present in the two movies—natural beauty that leaves smears of color on the hands that touch it, fabrics and clothing that figure prominently in the narrative, etc. Gabbeh, though, weaves a compact and moving romantic fable into its dazzling canvas, whereas What Dreams May Come selects too large a story and then handles it erratically.

If you are going to throw aside characters in the interest of visual pleasure, why not do what Dark City or Babe did, and make the characters purposefully broad or fanciful enough that we do not resent the short shrift they receive? It seems particularly wrong to force the audience into watching Sciorra's character lose everything but then, rather than allow us to understand and spend time with her, to divert us instead into distracting, only semi-related spectacle. A shimmering lake, a resplendent palace, a coffee cup that melts back into paint: much of this is marvelous, buy why are we looking at them, and why did we require such grim, elaborate backstory to get us here? Wouldn't Ward and Zanetti's vision have been better suited to more purely escapist material? In the end, What Dreams May Come is a noteworthy success in the one area where it really tries to prove itself, but the other dimensions of the film are allowed to wither into something far less interesting, both to us and to the filmmakers. Imagine what dreams of richer, fairer, more integrated entertainments may come when Vincent Ward commits his exciting imagination to a story he actually cares about. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Art Direction: Eugenio Zanetti; Cindy Carr
Best Visual Effects: Joel Hynek, Nicholas Brooks, Stuart Robertson, and Kevin Scott Mack

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