One of the more stupidly misleading advertising campaigns in recent memory may clip the commercial wings of "Dragonfly," a fitfully affecting supernatural romance that inexplicably is being sold in trailers and TV spots as some kind of spooky-scary, blood-and-thunder ghost story.

One of the more stupidly misleading advertising campaigns in recent memory may clip the commercial wings of “Dragonfly,” a fitfully affecting supernatural romance that inexplicably is being sold in trailers and TV spots as some kind of spooky-scary, blood-and-thunder ghost story. Ads appear designed to repel target aud of youngish to middle age femmes. Trouble is, genre aficionados will quickly spread the word that pic doesn’t live up (or down) to expectations. Favorable word of mouth could possibly extend theatrical run, but a fast-forward to homevid is more likely.

Drama begins on an arresting note of urgency as Chicago ER doc Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner) frantically scrambles to reach a Venezuelan “hellhole” (as he describes it to an airline ticket clerk) where his physician wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), is doing medico work among native tribespeople. Due to fuzzily explained political upheavals, the hole suddenly has become appreciably more hellish, and Joe wants to get his wife out of harm’s way.

Aud might reasonably wonder why the very pregnant Emily — she’s at least in her second trimester, possibly her third — would risk placing herself in even a lukewarm hellhole in the first place, but never mind. The question becomes moot when an evacuation bus plunges off a jungle mountainside and into a remote river. Emily and all other passengers are presumed dead.

Six months later, Joe remains devastated by his loss. He tries to numb the pain by working long hours in the emergency room, much to the distress of his cheery next-door neighbor (Kathy Bates) and the dour hospital administrator (Joe Morton). More or less ordered by latter to take a long vacation, Joe nonetheless sticks around to check on his wife’s former patients in the pediatric oncology ward.

Best known for his broad comedies (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”) and shameless schmaltz (“Patch Adams”), director Tom Shadyac shows surprising restraint as he slowly lays groundwork for plot’s gradual detour into “Twilight Zone” territory. Early on, aud learns the title refers to both a distinctive birthmark on Emily’s shoulder and the design on most of her favorite tchotchkes. Late one night, Joe is seriously rattled when a dragonfly-emblazoned paperweight mysteriously crashes from his bedside table.

Back at the hospital, he’s again unsettled by Jeffrey (Robert Bailey Jr.), a young patient who seems to speak with Emily’s voice during a near-death experience. After being revived, Jeffrey claims to have “seen” Emily. More important, the boy claims Emily wants to send Joe some kind of message.

Joe is mystified by the strange design — two wiggly intersecting lines — repeatedly drawn by Jeffrey and another young patient after their alleged otherworldly congress with Emily. So he seeks advice from an expert: Sister Madeline (Linda Hunt), a former hospital employee who was fired after attracting too much publicity for investigating near-death experiences. Unfortunately, Sister Madeline can provide only vague suggestions, not concrete answers. The truth is out there, but finding it may require a return trip to Joe’s least favorite locale.

“Dragonfly” works best when Shadyac sticks to generating suspense through allusions and ambiguities, teasing aud with hints that Joe may be suffering guilt-fueled hallucinations.

Around the midway point, however, screenwriters David Seltzer, Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson raise the ante with ghostly apparitions, buzzing dragonflies, flickering light bulbs and other cheesy scare tactics. Shadyac’s literal-minded approach underscores the obviousness and, much worse, triggers too many questions that can’t be answered. For instance: If Emily’s ghost can take a direct approach without using a middle man — that is, if she can smear wiggly intersecting lines onto kitchen windows and into clumps of dirt — why doesn’t she simply write a note, or draw a map, for her distraught husband?

Costner’s earnest performance is a major plus for “Dragonfly,” keeping the pic grounded in some semblance of reality even as it becomes progressively more fantastical. Bates provides a nice dose of common-sense skepticism laced with heartfelt empathy. Newcomer Bailey makes an appealing impression, despite a cheap-shock moment that calls for him to appear bug-eyed and maybe demonically possessed.

Other members of the unusually strong supporting cast — including Ron Rifkin as Joe’s physician friend and Matt Craven as another buddy — are mostly underutilized.

Lenser Dean Semler does more than his share to enhance the overall mood of not-so-quiet dread. Scenes set in Amazon jungle actually were filmed in Kauai, but auds likely won’t be able to tell one photogenic hellhole from another. Closing credits are accompanied by a shrill pop-rock tune that dissipates much of the goodwill generated by predictable but emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Dragonfly

Production

A Universal release of a Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Gran Via/Shady Acres production. Produced by Mark Johnson, Tom Shadyac, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber. Executive producers, James D. Brubaker, Michael Bostick. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Screenplay, David Seltzer, Brandon Camp, Mike Thompson, based on a story by Camp, Thompson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Dean Semler; editor, Don Zimmerman; music, John Debney; production designer, Linda DeScenna; art director, Jim Nedza; set decorator, Ric McElvin; costume designer, Judy Ruskin Howell; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Jose Antonio Garcia; visual effects supervisor, Jon Farhat; associate producers, Alan B. Curtiss, Janet Wattles, Arlene Kehela; assistant director, Alan B. Curtiss. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Stadium 23, Houston, Feb. 19, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Joe Darrow - Kevin Costner Hugh Campbell - Joe Morton Charlie Dickinson - Ron Rifkin Sister Madeline - Linda Hunt Emily Darrow - Susanna Thompson Pilot - Jacob Vargas Miriam Belmont - Kathy Bates Jeffrey Reardon - Robert Bailey Jr. Ben - Jacob Smith Hal - Jay Thomas Flora - Lisa Banes Eric - Matt Craven
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