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'Dreams': Heaven Help Us

By Michael O'Sullivan
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
For a bit of profanity and extensive discussion of death
Visual Effects
In the simpering, schmaltz-flavored afterlife of Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come," the leaves on the trees are a candy-colored shade of purple. Garish flowers bloom in a squishy, psychedelic Shangri-La straight out of a LeRoy Neiman painting. Neighbors float by your face, or hang in the air like giant gnats to be swatted down. Birds chirp and change color on the wing.

If this is Heaven, give me Hell.

In fairness, this is not Ward's vision of Heaven, per se, but Chris Nielsen's (Robin Williams). According to Ward's ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying film (based on the novel by Richard Matheson and adapted by screenwriter Ron Bass), Heaven is what you make it, kind of like a dream. When Chris passes away in a car accident, he wakes up, alas, in one of his wife Annie's rather mediocre paintings.

Annie (Annabella Sciorra), still alive and back on Earth, mourns her lost husband even as she continues to paint, adding details to her sentimental canvases that mysteriously appear in Chris's world. (You see, the connection between these lovers was just that strong.)

Now, if you're thinking this sounds like "Ghost," you'd be right, but this is where the similarity ends. Although both movies deal with a dead man's attempt to reunite with his wife, the weighty "Dreams," which addresses deeper philosophical, psychological and moral issues, is the talkier and infinitely more depressing of the two.

And, ironically, that's exactly what I liked about the movie. What I didn't like was the forced sugariness that suffused the bitter tang of its dark brew of ideas.

When Chris checks in to paradise, he spends a lot of time in gab sessions with Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a sort of blurry orientation counselor for the freshman class of the deceased. He has to explain a few things to Chris, such as the fact that "thought is real, physical is the illusion." Because Chris is so dense, the film spends a lot of time gnawing on the question of what death is. What is its nature? Is it a physical state? What does it entail and feel like?

At this point, as the earnest but emotionally undistinguished cast yammers back and forth, the film can start to feel more like an ontological exegesis than a love story, but Ward ("The Navigator," "Map of the Human Heart") is known for his introspective and brooding style, and you've got to give him credit for trying to make people think at the multiplex.

There are a number of surprises in the idiosyncratic film, and one of its pleasures is the oblique and unchronological way in which Ward peels away the layers of the story, flashing backward and forward in time and jumping between Earth and the Beyond, separating his scenes with blindingly blank, white-out screens. Without revealing too many plot details, it is safe to say that the director really hits his stride stylistically when Chris travels to Hell (for reasons that must remain obscure), under the guidance of a wizened tracker played by Max von Sydow.

Maybe you wouldn't want to live there, but as brought to bleak life in Ward's lavishly imagined vision, Hell is a fascinating place to visit, filled with horrors that are as vivid as the pleasures of Elysium are bland. It's obvious that the filmmaker has more affection in his own heart for the dark side than for the light.

So why, you might wonder, does Ward appear to capitulate to the tastes of the lowest common denominator, caving in to the widespread appetite for a happy ending, no matter how it seems to violate his aesthetic soul?

More than nervous studio heads or market surveys, most of the blame would seem to lie with the source material of Matheson's book, a text in which Ward never really seems totally at home. He's like an artistic hellion trapped in someone else's idea of Heaven.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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