DIRECTED BY: Vincent Ward
PLOT: A pediatrician dies and goes to paradise, but he’s willing to throw away an eternity of
bliss to find his wife, who’s trapped in a far less pleasant afterlife.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Majestic visuals make Dreams worth a gander for most, but due to high levels of sugary sentiment it’s contraindicated for diabetic cinephiles. While it has some unusual moments (and a cool eyeblink cameo from weird icon Werner Herzog as a tormented head), its weirdness isn’t much higher than any other Hollywood-approved fantasy.
COMMENTS: The romantic afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come flopped at the box office, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects. When pediatrician Chris (Robin Williams) dies and goes to heaven, the afterlife manifests as one of his wife’s oil paintings. Williams (joined by spiritual guide Cuba Gooding Jr.) wanders around inside an incredibly detailed landscape that looks like it was literally created out of paint; when his shoe slips on the mud, it exposes an undercoat of iridescent green and orange. It’s a miraculous mise-en-scène that, by itself, makes the movie worth catching. Other visuals pack quite a punch as well, especially when the action moves from a prismatic heaven to a gray hell: we watch a horde of swimming dead menacing Chris’s boat, and see him carefully transverse a field where the faces of the damned grow like heads of lettuce. Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production can’t keep up to the standard set by the visuals, and a vein of sappiness undermines the whole endeavor. What Dreams was made during the period when Robin Williams was still transitioning from a wacky motormouthed comedian to a “serious” dramatic actor, and he received some praise for this performance at the time; looking back, however, it seems too restrained, as if he’s trying to keep his massive personality in check. Gooding Jr. tries to compensate for Williams’ surprising lack of energy, and goes over the top a couple of times (I half expected him to shout out, “show me the salvation!”). Annabella Sciorra comes off best, but she needed a better agent; she gets third billed, behind supporting player Gooding Jr., and doesn’t even get her name before the title! The story actually has an affecting emotional core which is cleverly explored—Chris’ descent into his wife’s personal hell mirrors a real life tragedy suffered back on earth—but the pathos doesn’t come through as powerfully as it should; you might come away from the picture with the feeling that the message is that the only things that survive death are love and therapy. Distractions keep the story from getting into gear until the movie’s already half over. Sure, the visuals are awesome in Paradise, but the story dawdles there, just taking in the scenery. Chris’ relationship with his children is awkwardly handled as a pair of intrusive subplots to the main love story; it’s unsettling how, amidst so much longing for his wife back on Earth, he remembers to ask about his kids as an afterthought. The dialogue frequently sounds like it should be printed on a motivational poster rather than coming out of the mouths of believable human beings: there’s about a dozen variations on the theme of “never give up,” plus such cringe-inducing lines as “you don’t have to break in half to love somebody” and “what some folks call impossible is just stuff they haven’t seen before.” But even with all the kitsch and mawkishness spread throughout the film, it’s the ridiculous, nonsensical finish—with its teary hugs and wildflowers and sunlight glinting on the water and swelling strings—that leaves a sickly sweet aftertaste that almost ruins the whole experience. (An unfinished but more sensible alternate ending, which follows the original novel, is included as an extra on the disc). While What Dreams makes lots of references to fine art, from its “Hamlet”-inspired title to its mythological plot and the visual citations to 19th century paintings, it’s all a surface sheen of culture masking a limp, New Agey, nondenominational spirituality. Even Richard Matheson’s original novel, while not high art on the level of the masterpieces the movie references, seems bowdlerized (the author is on record as finding the adaptation disappointing). Though it clearly wants to be taken seriously as Art, the movie is simultaneously too concerned with being inoffensive and inspirational, so it ends up playing like Orpheus as adapted by someone whose only previous experience was writing greeting cards for Hallmark.
In an unusual move, What Dreams May Come listed about a dozen paintings which inspired the various looks of the film in the credits. 19th century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich was the most cited inspiration, with his The Wanderer Above the Mists and Two Men Contemplating the Moon singled out. You may notice just the tiniest hint of another influence, Hieronomous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, in the Hell scenes. The Paradise scenes, on the other hand, often have riotous color schemes that are more reminiscent to me of a modern impressionist like Leonid Afremov or even the Disney inspired work of Thomas Kinkade than the much subtler works of the Old Masters cited in the credits.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…probably not mainstream enough to enthrall audiences and assure a big return at the box office. It is arguably too offbeat… Director Vincent Ward’s view of heaven is surreal and spectacular, with special effects enhancing everything from the subtle greens of the mosses and grass to the crimsons, violets, oranges, and blues of the flower petals.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)