“Neverwas,” a heavily contrived drama from first-time feature writer-helmer Joshua Michael Stern, has a self-conscious sense of importance and prestige given a cast so incongruously top-heavy that its Academy Award winners get billed below the title. But fresh ideas and unforced emotions are few in a movie that will need strong critical support to make a theatrical impact — a longshot, since most critics are likely to point out that when a vaguely similar movie called “Finding Neverland” came out not long ago, its string-pulling was almost as obvious, but far more effective.
Co-producer Aaron Eckhart plays Zach Riley, a psychiatrist who’s left a position at Cornell to take one at Millwood Clinic, a residential facility with the requisite manorial look and verdant acreage. He tells his skeptical supervisor Dr. Reed (William Hurt) that he’s here because a “friend” was committed there long ago, and Zach wants to provide the kind of treatment he didn’t get. What the new doc doesn’t clarify is that the friend was his own father, who eventually committed suicide.
Seen in flashbacks, T.L. Pierson (Nick Nolte) was an author famed for the children’s book “Neverwas,” which in the tradition of James Barry and Lewis Carroll (and movies about them) cast a real child — Zack himself — as its protagonist. But dad was also a schizophrenic and depressive with various substance addictions, problems too vast for his son or wife (Jessica Lange) to solve. Naturally, little Zach was the one to find his father’s body — and has blamed himself ever since.
Zach now feigns zero interest in his late pa while in fact obsessing on the subject, including at work, where Dr. Reed conveniently ignores all signs of ethical breach.
Other factors remind the protag of his tragic childhood. There’s the clinginess and denial of his mom, (a bitchy, grasping Lange, showing how few roles there are for still-attractive leading actresses over 50). He also starts hanging around grad student Maggie (Brittany Murphy); they knew each other as children, and she’s carried a torch all these years. She’s also carried her first-edition copy of “Neverwas,” which provided a comforting escape then and is an adult security blanket now.
Most important is Gabriel (Ian McKellan), a twinkle-eyed old nutter at Millwood who acts as if he already knows Zach, and who turns out to be linked with the late father and “Neverwas,” which turns out to be real, sort of. Several artificial third-act crises precede a ludicrous climax, involving protection of the enchanted “Neverwas” kingdom from the Sheriff’s Dept.
Over-rigged script would have benefited from restrained execution, but this is the kind of movie where a madwoman’s outburst leads her to throw a mug that just happens to be filled with gold sparkles — which can then be photographed cascading down on all the adorable loonies, in slow-motion.
Principal sane characters all live in environments that scream Old Money, Vancouver (presumably standing in for New England), which is aflame with fall colors, and golden sunbeams backlight actors in nearly every frame of Michael Grady’s widescreen lensing. If the soft-focus childhood flashbacks or brief fantasy glimpses of “Neverwas” (which at times feature simple animation) don’t stand out as much as they should, that’s because the whole film is coated with gauzy sentimentality and forced whimsy.
A high-octane cast is used exclusively to do things they’ve done perhaps too many times already. Nolte essays another shambling wreck, Murphy relies again on her anxious cuteness; Alan Cumming (as a patient) acts neurotic, Hurt’s blandly authoritative. McKellan, in a rare misjudgment, treats his silly role with an unironic Gandalf-cum-Lear grandiosity that in the end is just embarrassing — just as Eckhart’s slightly dull sincerity winds up looking foolish against spiraling plot improbabilities.
Tech aspects are, in line with everything else, polished to a reflective sheen. If it weren’t for an occasionally noticeable two-note pulse of trademark minimalism, the mediocre score wouldn’t suggest a composer of Philip Glass’ stature.