What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come split me right down the middle: Visually, it’s one of the great movies of its decade; dramatically, it’s rather blurry and baffling. The movie keeps toying with existential dread and then swooping up and away, sprinkling little life lessons that generally boil down to “Don’t give up.” What Dreams May Come may be helpful for the grief-stricken or suicidal, or those who hook into its comforting Deep Thoughts about why we’re here, but the rest of us may sit and stare at it in honest bewilderment. Fortunately, the movie gives us a great many things to stare at.

First, the literal translation of what’s on the screen. Christy Nielsen (Robin Williams) meets Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra) when their boats bump together on a lake; they become instant soulmates, marry, and have a son and daughter. Both kids die in a car accident, and Christy himself is killed four years later; he winds up in a painterly Heaven (inspired by his wife’s artwork), where he meets a glowing angel named Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr). As the Radiator Lady sang in Eraserhead, “In Heaven, everything is fine” — except that Christy misses Annie and the kids. (You may also recall the Talking Heads lyric “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”) Then Annie, alone back on Earth and overwhelmed by the cruel nothingness of it all, takes her own life and ends up in Hell. So Christy has to go rescue her.

A dead man going to Hell and back for the woman he loves: this sounds like the blueprint for a terrific epic fantasy-romance. But What Dreams May Come, adapted by scripter Ron Bass from a Richard Matheson book, isn’t interested in the quest so much as the lessons learned along the way. I haven’t read Matheson’s book, so I don’t know whom to blame for the film’s soft-headed approach. A director like Terry Gilliam could have done justice to the romantic quest while keeping the pieties to a minimum (imagine his visions of Heaven and Hell). The director here is Vincent Ward, the enraptured fantasist who made The Navigator and Map of the Human Heart. He may not have a lick of tough-mindedness, but he’s got an eye.

Ward and cinematographer Eduardo Serra seem to be working with an infinite palette of colors, especially in Heaven, which looks like an explosion in a paint factory. Even the scenes on Earth are suffused with sharp colors that have an almost psychedelic clarity: Christy’s blue shirt is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. (It’ll make a great DVD rental.) If Ward stumbles anywhere, it’s in the later scenes in Hell, which feel familiar and borderline schlocky: the rusty industrial landscape, the moaning damned with their heads sticking out of the ground — it’s all like the worst Nine Inch Nails video never made. Mostly, though, the visuals kept me rapt and attentive, even coming close to misting up a couple of times.

It’s all very tasteful and subdued; nothing in the movie pushes your “Give me a break” button — except the tale itself. In Hell, Christy finds Annie in a tangled version of their earthly house; we’re to understand that she’s lost in her own grief and that Christy must pull her out of herself. Here, and in many other scenes, you can intellectualize what’s going on without ever really feeling it, and I wasn’t at all convinced by Christy’s strategy or its outcome.

After all the brooding set-up and lush visuals, What Dreams May Come turns out to be yet another security-blanket fable for people afraid of death. It says that where there is life, there is hope, and all that. It flirts with the abyss, with real depths of despair, and then trivializes them with some sympathy-card stuff about love and endurance. What a wondrous piece of eye candy this is, though. Rent the DVD, kill the sound, and put on a classical CD (my pick: Gorecki’s “Symphony No. 3”), and you’ve got a winner.

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