Sunday, October 5, 2008


In "What Dreams May Come," Robin Williams plays a doctor who dies and goes to Hell. Sitting through New Zealand director Vincent Ward's visually arresting but histrionic New Age allegory about life, death, suicide, and reincarnation is like going to Hell, too. "What Dreams May Come" derives its title from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," but prolific science fiction & fantasy writer Richard Matheson penned the actual novel. No, I haven't perused Matheson's novel, but people have reliably assured me that the movie pales in comparison with its literary source. An earlier and more successful Matheson novel "Bid Time Return" became the cult romance classic "Somewhere in Time" with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Kiddie friendly pediatrician Chris Nelsen (Robin Williams) and his gifted artist wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra of "Jungle Fever") are soul mates. Nothing can separate them! "Dreams" repeats this theme ad nauseam so that its ludicrously lackadaisical ending comes as no revelation. Meeting in their youth on a serene lake in Switzerland, they court in the scenic Alps. Life blesses them. Residing in a palatial home, they raise two adorable teenagers, Ian (Josh Paddock) and Marie (Jessica Brooks), along with a rambunctious Dalmatian. Chris enjoys a successful practice as a doctor, while Annie doubles not only as an artist but also as an art gallery curator.

During the opening expository scenes, "Dreams" bathes audiences in the warm radiance that wreathes the Nielsen home. Predictably, the good times prove ephemeral. Less than twenty minutes into the action, an off-screen auto accident claims the lives of both Ian and Marie. A few scenes later (four years in story time), Chris dies in a spectacular on-screen accident. Initially, Chris refuses to believe that he has kicked the bucket. After all, Chris is walking on Earth as the living do, and he appears none the worse for all his wear and tear. Audiences know better, however, because they see his heavily bandaged body from several high angle shots that suggest his spirit has blown town. Chris eavesdrops on his own funeral. He struggles to console his grief-stricken wife. Eventually, his fuzzy-looking spiritual guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), convinces Chris that he can do Annie no good by lingering. Every time that Chris achieves a breakthrough with Annie, she collapses in tears and recriminations. Frustrated, Chris gives up the "Ghost" routine.

Meanwhile, Annie's condition steadily deteriorates. She holds herself responsible for the accidental deaths of both her children and Chris. She let their housekeeper drive Ian and Marie to school the day of their fatal accident because she was too busy with her career. Later, she dispatched Chris to get some paintings for an upcoming gallery exhibit which she couldn't fetch because she was feeling poorly. Colliding with death in a traffic-clogged tunnel, Chris dies playing Good Samaritan to a woman trapped in a wrecked car. After Chris's funeral, Annie considers suicide. Nothing can console her, not even the diary that her therapist has made her compile to deal with her grief and guilt.

Veteran scenarist Ronald Bass adapted "Dreams." Usually, he knows what constitutes a worthwhile weepie. His impressive credits include "Waiting to Exhale," "When a Man Loves a Woman," and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Sadly, Bass's skills abandon him in this overblown, love-conquerors-all melodrama riddled with chaos, contrivance, and a conspicuous lack of coherence. Neither Bass nor Ward focuses enough time on the Nielson family as a unit to make them seem sympathetic or charismatic. Cluttered incomprehensibly with flashbacks which come and go in fits and starts, "Dreams" generates wholesale confusion. Ward and Bass shuttle audiences incessantly between the present and the past as well as Heaven and Hell. Not only do they weave a tangled tale, but they also play musical chairs with their characters. The characters aren't so much individuals as they are puppets that stand for ideas.

Despite all of this rampant confusion, "Dreams" conjures up some of the most phantasmagorical imagery that any movie has ever offered. Lenser Eduardo Serra of "Blood Diamond" and production designer Eugenio Zanetti of "Flatliners" deserve Oscars for their sterling efforts. Even when "Dreams" is boring, the LSD scenery is powerful. Hell resembles a conventional synthesis of Dante's "Inferno" and the art of Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch.

A miscast Robin Williams does a mediocre Kevin Kline impersonation. Worse, reverting to his usual comic antics, Williams cracks giddy jokes that clash with more than compliment this metaphysical melodrama. Sciorra suffers from a string of bad hair scenes. Williams and Sciorra both play characters that reinforce sexist, one-dimensional stereotypes. Chris braves Hades as the never-say-die husband hero, while Annie epitomizes the hysterical damsel-in-distress. "Dreams" represents Sciorra's first role after an absence of some years. Too bad that she chose to grace this poster-art pabulum to stage a comeback.

Only mahogany-faced Max Von Sydow of "Flash Gordon" emerges with his reputation intact. Cast as 'the Tracker,' he escorts Chris through Hades to find Annie. Sydow wears an outfit that combines Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name with Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology who steers the dead to Hades over the river Styx. Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings good cheer to a role that qualifies as strictly secondary.

"What Dreams May Come" (* out of ****) makes the after-life appear alluring. Admirably, the filmmakers treat suicide as a big no-no. Horribly, they do a soft shoe where morality is concerned. In granting amnesty to Sciorra's suicidal character, "Dreams" suggests that life and death are not altogether terminal states of consciousness. The theology of "Dreams" stirs Greek mythology, New Age religion, and Judeo-Christian traditions into a thick soup that shouldn't offend anybody except die-hard fundamentalists. Although thematically ambitious and visually spectacular, "What Dreams May Come" degenerates into a sluggish, schmaltzy, tear-jerker whose happy ending is hopeless manipulative.

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