A feel-good “Orpheus” for the late ’90s, “What Dreams May Come” represents a heaping serving of metaphysical gobbledygook wrapped in a physically striking package. With Robin Williams leading an extensive tour of the afterlife as imagined through a gallery-full of vivified 19th century romantic paintings, Vincent Ward’s ambitious first American film tilts toward undue sentimentality from the get-go and shortly becomes hopelessly mired in its eagerness to remain likable and upbeat in the face of subject matter that calls for considerable more gravity and depth. This attempt to rally a mass audience around the weighty themes of mortality and eternal love had an outside shot at the “Ghost” audience, but the reportedly $85 million-$90 million production looks to fall way short of the commercial mark despite its audience-pleasing aspirations.
In tackling Richard Matheson’s 20-year-old tome about a man’s effort to reunite with his wife after death, the filmmakers no doubt believed that they were embarking upon a brave, unusually serious undertaking for a Hollywood project. In the event, however, the picture spreads out every conceivable safety net for its walk on the spiritual high wire, going directly for the tear ducts at the outset via the deaths of children and a pet dog, for God’s sake, and reducing the perennial theme of transcendent love to the easily digestible pop slogan, “You must never give up.”
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At almost every moment, the picture evinces a tension between a desire to assert itself as an aesthetically refined consideration of its potentially weighty subject, and a compulsion to pander to a low common denominator via emotional manipulation and an avoidance at all costs of a tragic view of existence. Unfortunately, this creative split does not work in the film’s favor, but instead dilutes both its artistic and commercial qualities.
Before the opening credits are even over, the two children of upscale couple Chris and Annie Nielsen (Williams and Annabella Sciorra) are dead and buried. Jump ahead four years and a few more minutes of screen time and Chris, too, is killed in an auto accident and surveying his own funeral while chatting to his host in the hereafter, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Chris, who is portrayed as little short of a saint in flashback snippets of his corporal life as a doctor, husband and father, finds himself in a strange world of brilliant colors, dramatic landscapes and remarkably familiar visions that he soon understands are elaborations upon the paintings his wife either restored or created herself. His heaven, in which both Annie and, for a time, Albert remain blurry figures, consists of intense representations of the heightened romantic world he and his wife inhabited together, but one that Chris must now accept that he will occupy without her.
It must be said that nothing quite like this painted world has been seen in a major feature film before, as it no doubt would have been impossible to create such a thing so credibly before the advent of the sort of sophisticated digital visual effects that can make three-dimensional spaces out of two-dimensional art works. Drawing upon diverse artistic sources but influenced most decisively by the brooding, windswept, nature-dominated landscapes of German romanticist Caspar David Friedrich, the film’s backgrounds provide a genuine feast for the eyes.
At first, Chris slides about as his shoes alight upon grass and flower surfaces that are nothing but large daubs of paint. Sprites, in 19th century garb, flit about through the sky, people walk on water, and Chris soon envisions, among other sights, a golden metropolis in the classical style and other vast constructs straight out of the Age of Enlightenment. It’s an enticing, lofty version of what an educated man might want to find in the next life, and getting it so convincingly on the screen represents an indisputable triumph for the many heads and hands involved on both the conceptual and technical sides.
Pic’s narrative progress is another story, however. Pushing fearlessly into an increasingly insufferable realm of touchy-feely mysticism, Ron Bass’ structurally intricate but dramatically banal script has Chris discover the fates of his children, but also learn that, since a depressed Annie committed suicide and has been relegated to “somewhere else,” he can never hope to be with her throughout eternity.
This is where the “never give up” ethic kicks in, as Chris engages a gruff, wise old man called “The Tracker” (Max von Sydow, very welcome as the only tough-minded person onscreen here) to guide him, as it were, across the River Styx and into hell to rescue his Eurydice. Once again, the creative team is up to the visual challenge involved, as the gates of hell are imaginatively represented as a massive, nocturnal watery graveyard in which any number of battleships from diverse historical eras are seen in flames on their way to the bottom. Hell itself is then memorably depicted as a vast, gloomy field of mud from which innumerable densely packed faces peer up in eternal hopelessness.
But even here, the visuals don’t possesses the weight of their startling conceptual creativity because the overall approach to the material backs away from anything that smacks of the profound or the genuinely disturb-ing. The somewhat highbrow aspirations suggested by the “intellectual” use of the paintings and by the epic, transcendent elements in Ward’s previous work create hopes for a haunting and intelligent treatment of infinitely deep subject matter, while the mealy-mouthed philosophical platitudes — dialogue is loaded with wish-fulfillment aphorisms such as “It’s in your mind” and “All you have to do is close your eyes” — bring the level of discussion down to the level of greeting cards.
Audiences who liked Williams in “Jack” may love him here, but anyone hoping for the old Williams edge should beware. Gooding is antic and good-natured in a role that remains as fuzzy as it initially appears to be visually, and Sciorra is emotionally sincere in a highly idealized role.
The film’s technical accomplishment is its signal point of interest. A more dissonant, complex score might have helped bridge the gap between the picture’s two warring impulses, but composer Michael Kamen mostly underlines the obvious emotional points.