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Gushy Fantasy of 'Dreams'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 1998

  Movie Critic

What Dreams May Come
Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr. star in "What Dreams May Come." (Fox)

Vincent Ward
Robin Williams;
Annabella Sciorra;
Cuba Gooding Jr.;
Max von Sydow;
Rosalind Chao
Running Time:
1 hour, 53 minutes
Contains scenes of emotional intensity
Visual Effects
The makers of "What Dreams May Come" seem to be asleep at the wheel of fortune. This isn't a movie about destiny so much as an art exhibit about Arcadian fantasy, with little moving figures in the corners of the paintings. Holograms? Could be, but no, they turn out to be, under closer examination, professional motion picture actors: Robin Williams in his winsome mode, preening for approval; Cuba Gooding Jr., cute and feisty, when in focus; and Max von Sydow, who hasn't been so chalky since "The Seventh Seal." But you hardly notice them for all the lush, fanciful landscapes that resemble Gustave Dore on cheap muscatel.

Under all the spectacle and a profoundly insane color scheme, a tiny worm of story crawls slowly toward the end of the film. It involves Williams as Chris Nielson, a doctor who loses his two beloved children in a car wreck; three years later, after nursing his shattered wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) back to some kind of mental stability, he himself is killed in yet another car wreck.

He wakes up in Heaven, which is composed mainly of his wife's paintings. Since she was some kind of nutsy fabulist who probably majored in Poussin at Barnard and painted on too much espresso, the paintings are gushy romantic landscapes full of mythological cities, golden mountains, Swiss lakes, sailboats and clip art from the Classics-'R'-Us archive. In this purple glade, he learns to fly, to dream, to have a jolly good old time.

Back on Earth, the Missis has been happier. Ultimately, the unluckiest traffic widow on Earth kills herself, but by the rules (whose? Don't ask. The movie doesn't mention the G-d word) she has to go to another place. You know, the hot one.

Still desperately in love with her, our hero decides to go on a trek from up to down, from cool to hot, from cloud to flame, to rescue her. How does he plan to do so? Ah: a long scene in which the two of them blubber incoherently at each other.

So, this movie is composed of two elements: a) paintings, and b) blubbering. It lacks a third element, c) drama.

Directed by Vincent ("A Map of the Human Heart") Ward, who is either a genius or a crackpot, and derived from a long-ago novel by Richard Matheson, the film is overproduced and underpopulated, with either characters or ideas. It means to hide its lack of insight under the grandness of its soaring visual expansiveness, by the miracle of what it shows us. This strategy is extremely effective for as much as two or possibly even three minutes. But the movie lacks any sense of forward motion and any sense of ordeal and risk. It's basically about actors walking around on huge empty stages, waiting for the months to pass and some guy in a lab to add the pizazz.

Since Heaven and Hell can be anything the art director decrees, the budget allows and the computer can generate, the journey from one to the other can likewise be so. But in this movie when Robin Williams decides to go to Hell, he just does so. The journey takes about 10 minutes by foot and elevator and he sees some interesting sights along the way, but there's no sense of danger or risk. The ideas of the movie haven't been transfigured into narrative, into adventure; it's a movie about walking.

I can walk to the cafeteria with about as much difficulty, but instead of seeing a landscape full of ruined ships ablaze as if the dive bombers had just finished up and were heading back to the carrier and a field of dead soldiers from Agincourt or Crecy, I'll see some corridors, a few offices where they do work I don't understand and an elevator that might even consent to run that particular day. Then I meet my ham sandwich and the two of us have a nice blubber and read the sports section.

Okay, it's not much; but other than the vision thing, it's roughly the adventure chronicled in "What Dreams May Come." Some men dream of Heaven, others of ham sandwiches; that's the way it goes.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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