What Dreams May Come (1998)
Directed by Vincent Ward
Written by Ron Bass
A Visionary Film, by my definition, is an attempt to create an entire universe with its own self-contained logic, characters, events, and locations that would otherwise not exist. Visionary Films are invariably the films I most look forward to, and are frequently the most frustrating and disappointing (Gattaca and The Fifth Element, for example).
The vision of What Dreams May Come is "what happens when you die," or for you Bible thumpers, Heaven and Hell. Robin Williams plays Chris Nielson (also the name of a former kindergarten classmate, an obvious ploy to deliver coded messages to me), a doctor who is killed relatively early in the film and finds himself in the ever-after, pining for his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra).
Cuba Gooding, Jr., plays a sort of tour guide, helping ease Chris into understanding that he is dead, while Max Von Sydow, who must be at least 3,000 years old, plays a "tracker" who helps souls find each other in the vast expanses of the afterlife.
Chris is so determined to find his wife and save her from eternal suffering that he breaks all of the "rules" of the afterlife and travels literally from Heaven to Hell.
The vision itself is a stunning success. Chris's Heaven is a painting that Annie created to represent the place they wanted to retire; literally his version of paradise. Since he is an art connoisseur, everything from the trees and flowers to the clouds and birds appears to be painted despite having the qualities and motion of real life.
The scenes of Chris' discovery of paradise are truly delightful, much to the credit of Robin Williams. The fact that we all know it's a computer generated universe doesn't detract from the imagery, which draws from classical art, and works as completely and impressively as you hoped it would.
The plot is satisfyingly complex, with important information revealed as the story progresses, and some scenes repeated to added dramatic effect. Chris recalls events and images from his life that connect with places he creates in the afterlife. Each location and image is explained nicely, and it becomes clear that literally everything in Chris' afterlife has a reason to exist.
I very much enjoyed this self-contained logic, as well as the process of discovery for both Chris and the audience. The journey he undertakes is equally resonant; it's not just about finding your "soulmate," which the Cuba Gooding character explains is a dubious pursuit, it's about karma.
Chris has to address his failings as a human being in order to succeed in reconnecting with his wife. And they're not simple failings like "I forgot to do the dishes that one time." Chris is forced to test the true depth of his commitment, and must break through his urge to choose strength over vulnerability.
It's a layered and lush film with very strong performances across the board. I'm not a huge fan of Williams's most popular work as an actor, such as the pathetic Awakenings and the excremental Dead Poets Society, but he has done some nice work (Moscow on the Hudson and Garp).
I was, however, thrilled that he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting because it was a truly great, understated performance that wiped away the saccharine-poopie skid marks of his previous attempts at drama. It was nice to see that he really is improving as an actor in a second slam-dunk performance.
Sciorra surprised me, not in her performance, which was good but unremarkable (and I can't remember anything she's done that made me sit up and go hello there lady), but in terms of how great she looked. I always thought of her as a kind of mousy Italian type, good for mob wives and starring roles in tiresome independents. So it was a nice new thing to discover that she's a very attractive woman with pleasing hips.
Cuba Gooding is a shakier; he works best in his early scenes as the tour guide to paradise, combining sympathy and humor and energy, and is less effective when he actually has to show fear or any other emotion besides brash confidence. However, it doesn't matter since the effects and the other actors do the work for him.
Max Von Sydow doesn't really have to do anything because he, like Martin Landau, is just plain interesting to look at, and somehow manages to invest any stupid line with import and tension.
For a film so completely suffused with the dripping emotion of its characters, the climax is emotionally flat, and didn't elicit the much-desired lump in the throat or the holding back of the tears. Also, the filmmakers overplayed their hand a bit in terms of "we've got cool things to show you," i.e., there were moments when the imagery and intensity became suffocating.
A lighter touch, a sharp-eyed editor, or a good, old-fashioned Spielbergian manipulation, complete with swelling music and hugs all around, would have pitched this film into the stratosphere. Either that or change the title to Wet Dreams May Cum, add a nifty soundtrack and some irrelevant raw sex, and you've got yourself a hit.
Review by Crimedog