Friday October 2, 1998

     Some movies are so cloying and simplistically sentimental they could rouse the Grinch in a saint. "What Dreams May Come" is a hymn to enduring romance off-putting enough that playing the old rock anthem "Love Stinks" at top volume is the only reliable antidote.
     Directed by Vincent Ward, written by Ron Bass from a novel by Richard Matheson and starring Robin Williams in one of his trademark lachrymose performances, "Dreams" has the knack of bringing out the most unfortunate tendencies in its collaborators.
     New Zealand director Ward, more of a name on the festival circuit than in Hollywood, has alternated between being visually adventurous ("The Navigator") and full-throttle weepy ("Map of the Human Heart").
     Seconding that emotion is prolific screenwriter Bass, whose credits range from "Rain Man" and "The Joy Luck Club" to "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and who seems to have never met a tear he didn't like.
     As for Williams, his Oscar for "Good Will Hunting" and his three other nominations and assorted honors notwithstanding, the awkward truth remains that he is a brilliant comedian who is no more than a passable actor and whose determination to indulge a personal sweet tooth for schmaltz represents one of the most visible wastes of genius around.
     Putting these three people together was a dangerous act, fated to start a chain reaction of hokum powerful enough to flatten everything in its path. Though "Dreams" has the benefit of the extremely inventive use of computer-generated effects, it pushes its love-conquers-all theme so hard that an alternate title could well have been "Men Who Love Too Much and the Women Who Love Them."
     Chris Nielsen (Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) meet Hollywood-style when their boats gently collide on one of Europe's most picturesque lakes. One look apiece and both know they've found their soul mate, and before the credits have finished they're a blissfully married two-career couple (he's a caring physician, she's a talented artist) with a pair of swell children.
     But joyous as they are at the outset, that's how miserable Chris and Annie become when, out of nowhere in more ways than one, repeated tragedies hit them, culminating in the death of Chris when he tries to be a good Samaritan at an accident scene.
     This sounds awfully sad, but frankly it plays more bothersome than moving. Despite all their hugs, kisses and protestations of undying love, Chris and Annie's relationship is so minimally sketched in, so simplistic in its rendering, that even the entry-level sense of reality needed for us to feel for them is lacking.
     Great guy that he is, Chris goes directly to heaven, where he's met by Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a kind of spirit guide who divides his time between detailing how the place works (the afterlife needs more explaining than the federal tax code) and uttering gee-whiz platitudes like "If you're aware you exist, then you do," "Thought is real, physical is the illusion" and the always popular "When you do, you will."
     The basic idea here is that we create our own paradises out of what's in our heads. Ward and his effects team show us several different versions of both heaven and hell, and while some look like bad Fellini, others are truly startling visually.
     The best heaven of all is the one Chris imagines out of one of his wife's canvases. The result is a vivid painterly world, where the colors are so supersaturated they literally come off in your hands. Created by POP Film and Digital Domain (with Joel Hynek and Nicholas Brooks credited as effects supervisors), it's by far the neatest trick in this production's repertory.
     While Chris is getting the hang of being gone, widow Annie is miserable back on Earth. Then she is gone as well, and, like Orpheus before him, Chris, swearing to all and sundry that no couple has ever been in love like the two of them, must journey to the grungiest parts of the afterlife to attempt a reunion everyone says can't be done. "Stick around, chief," he says to doubters in one of the film's clunkiest exchanges. "You ain't seen nothing yet."
     "Dreams" is derivative of more than the Orpheus legend. It steals Max Von Sydow from Ingmar Bergman's films about life and death and has bits and pieces of "Ghost" and numerous other tear-jerkers in it. Though the film wants to be on the side of the angels, so to speak, it's life-affirming in the most deadly, calculating way. Watching it is like being in a room with a couple locked in a torrid embrace. It might be fun for them, but what's in it for everyone else?


What Dreams May Come, 1998. PG-13, for thematic elements involving death, some disturbing images and language. An Interscope Communications production, in association with Metafilmics, released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment. Director Vincent Ward. Producers Stephen Simon, Barnet Bain. Executive producers Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Erica Huggins, Ron Bass. Screenplay Ron Bass, based on the novel by Richard Matheson. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editors David Brenner, Maysie Hoy. Costumes Yvonne Blake. Music Michael Kamen. Production design Eugenio Zanetti. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Robin Williams as Chris Nielsen. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Albert. Annabella Sciorra as Annie Nielsen. Max Von Sydow as The Tracker. Rosalind Chao as Leona.