The second tale of supernatural soul mates to hit movie screens this year (the first was, of course, the relentlessly sorrowful City of Angels), What Dreams May Come has similarly big ideas. Robin Williams plays Chris Nielsen, a saintly pediatrician with a lovely and talented wife, Annie (Anabella Sciorra), and two kids. In short order, the kids are dead. Before much more screen time can elapse, Chris is crushed by an oncoming automobile as he tries to help out the victim of a car crash.
All is not lost, because Chris finds himself in a lovely, hyperrealistic afterlife crafted from the imagery of Annie’s oil paintings. Even his beloved dog is here. But all is not well, as a tagalong angel (Cuba Gooding Jr.) breaks the news that a despondent Annie has killed herself, and, worse, that suicides go to a different place. With the help of a mysterious “tracker” played by that master purveyor of Scandinavian angst, Max von Sydow, Chris embarks on an Orphean quest into a splendidly realized inferno to find and rescue his beloved.
Rigorous in its portrayal of heaven and hell, What Dreams May Come exhibits a novelist’s attention to psychological detail. Early reviews led me to expect a gloppy New Age fable, but this isn’t a movie to be taken quite so lightly. The story bears the mark of novelist Richard Matheson’s extensive research into afterlife mythology, even if screenwriter Ron Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Dangerous Minds) has necessarily simplified it.
Unfortunately, despite intensely likable performances from everyone involved, especially Williams and the underrated Sciorra, the movie never generates much narrative momentum. Part of the problem is that the lead characters are drawn so shallowly, with little more than the charisma of the actors convincing us of their undying attachment. Also troubling, for a quest movie, is the almost complete lack of physical action. Some admittedly dazzling visuals go to waste as backdrops for scenes that feature only elaborate explanations of just what the heck is going on — the setting is majestic and grandiose, but Chris never once has to interact with it. Finally, I respect the film for making a three-minute conversation the culmination of everything that has come before, but lament the lack of narrative tension leading into it. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent film, but not a particularly compelling one. For all its deep thinking and strong feelings, What Dreams May Come suffers from an overwhelming banality.
Directed by Vincent Ward
Written by Ron Bass
from the novel by Richard Matheson
Edited by David Brenner
Cinematography by Eduardo Serra
Starring Robin Williams, Anabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr.,
and Max von Sydow
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)