Beautifully executed beyond- the- grave romance philosophical, but over- simplified
"What Dreams May Come" is reminiscent of a surrealistic European art film remade by Hollywood without all the symbolic, cerebral insight. But in this case, there was no French, Italian or German film that came first.
A philosophical and abstract take on life after death, "Dreams" stars Robin Williams as a Chris Nielsen, a recently deceased husband who searches the afterlife for his wife (Annabella Sciorra), who kills herself after his death in a car accident and subsequently goes to hell. (I've oversimplified a bit to be concise. The movie doesn't adhere specifically to any religious tenants about heaven and hell.)
Beautifully executed with the considerable aid of state-of-the-art computer effects (just five years ago, a movie like this would have been impossible), the afterlife as envisioned in "Dreams" is what each persons makes of it. Because Williams' wife was a painter, his personal heaven is a solidification of some of her work. He subconsciously creates his eternity as a landscape acrylic, and one that isn't quite dry. Until his vision finishes taking shape he can squish a flower in his hand and watch it turn to blue goo.
"We all paint our own surroundings," he's told by Cuba Gooding, Jr., his angel guide, "But you're the first guy I know to use real paint."
Williams taps his inner child in a more subtle way than usual for scenes in which he splashes around his personal paradise with Gooding (Oscar winner for "Jerry Maguire"), who turns out to be someone he knew in his mortal past. But Chris' giddiness doesn't last because the strong bond he shares with his Annie (Sciorra) gives him an overwhelming sense of her anguish. Their two children had died in another car crash only four years before and his death is a bit much for her to take.
But the way this romantic, spiritual, beyond-the-grave connection is over-simplified is an example of where "Dreams" goes wrong. A throwaway line of dialogue -- "Soul mates, it's extremely rare," says the angel -- substitutes for establishing any real magic between Williams and Sciorra. I'm not knocking the actors, I'm just saying the film dumbs down all its more intricate concepts so as not to leave behind any dimmer members of the audience.
Taken to the extreme, this leads, for instance, to a scene where director Vincent Ward ("Map of the Human Heart") cuts away from Williams standing by a tree in heaven to a shot of the same image from Sciorra's painting just to drive home the perfectly obvious fact that Chris's concept of the great beyond was born in his wife's art. Thank you, we got it, already!
This irksome habit of underestimating the moviegoer distracts from what is otherwise a visionary picture of spectacular sights and strong emotions.
Chris rips himself away from a selfish desire to haunt his wife after realizing his spiritual presence is tearing her apart. Soon afterwards she adds a tree to her painting, and at the same time a tree appears near Chris in heaven, inspiring that convenient line about soul mates.
Annie's pending suicide is foreshadowed by that same tree dying. Powerful symbolism to be sure, paving the way for a journey through the netherworld that pays homage to Orpheus while managing to scare up a few new metaphors of its own.
Chris enlists the help of a "tracker" (Max Von Sydow) in a heavenly city that looks like a Terry Gilliam take on Venice. Led through the gates of hell in a metaphysical Mad Max episode, he searches for her among thousands of pale, tortured souls, some buried ear-deep in sand by the dozens.
It's a ominous, surreal world, half Auschwitz, half "Alice in Wonderland" -- effectively heinous without being entirely disturbing. The theological concepts bandied about in these scenes are as meticulously conceived as the setting -- challenging, intriguing notions that at the same time do not affront any religious schools of thought.
I enjoyed the fact that "What Dreams May Come" delves unabashedly into such intricate ideas as exploring what exactly makes hell a place of torment. But all the way through it stuck in my craw me that director Ward was holding my hand and explaining every little thing to me like I was a child.
The picture purports to be highly cerebral, philosophical and intellectual, yet still aims for the lowest common denominator. You can't have it both ways.
For the most part, I liked "Dreams," with its high-concept magical realism. But in the end, that magical realism is more "Field of Dreams" than it is "Like Water for Chocolate," culminating in a Tickle-Me Elmo of a feel-good ending -- the ultimate example of how the movie kowtows to the send-'em-home-happy concept of Hollywood filmmaking.