The greatest crime committed by the 1998 film What Dreams May Come is its excessive, nearly humorless earnest, personified by its star, Robin Williams. That's certainly better than the alternative -- the sort of emotion-denying ubersnark with which we're all too familiar -- but it deadens the impact of what could be a lovely story with a thudding overemphasis. It all starts with the casting of Williams, whom director Vincent Ward pegs as an "everyman," but he really isn't: he's a funnyman of a thousand voices and really only two modes, maniacally funny or saintly serious. He spends the entire movie as the latter, and considering that it's a movie about heaven, that kind of precludes any kind of real character development. Williams's miscasting is the most serious error made by the filmmakers, and it's not quite enough to sink the movie, but it comes awfully close.
Still, it's a compelling story, based on a novella by Richard Matheson, who also wrote "I Am Legend," perhaps the single most influential vampire story after Bram Stoker's Dracula. Williams plays Chris Nielsen, a loving husband who tries to hold together his wife's sanity after their two children die, then is forced to discover the afterlife when he himself dies in a car accident. His family life is mostly revealed through flashback, as he discovers heaven with the help of a guide (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), and searches for his family through hell itself with a celestial tracker (played by the always graceful Max von Sydow). The actors who play his children are decent, and his wife's beauty and mental breakdown is handled well by Annabella Sciorra, but Williams and Sciorra don't have enough chemistry to justify the central conceit of their relationship: that they are soulmates on such a profound level that they defy the afterlife itself to remain together. Instead, Williams's protestations about how much they love each other simply come off as the denials of a badly mourning husband.
The visuals, however, are awe-inspiring, and the movie won as Oscar for visual effects. The film's view of heaven was basically cribbed a decade later by Peter Jackson, Ward's countryman in New Zealand, for his The Lovely Bones, but the earlier film is both more beautiful and a better film. They tasked a team of computer animators with the creation of a "Painted World," a heaven that appears to the artistic Williams as having been constructed of impressionist paint strokes, which streak against his coat and shoes as he walks through a flowery countryside. It's an afterlife mostly divorced from religious morality, as we understand it: each heaven and each hell is a personal one, of the decedent's making, made from the reality they believe or refuse to acknowledge. They see what they want to see, and either imprison or liberate themselves within their own thoughts.
What Dreams May Come bombed -- it only recouped $55 million of its $85 million budget at the domestic box office -- and it effectively killed Ward's international career, which is a shame. This film reveals a filmmaker of profound strengths despite the blind spots. Even in a big-budget film like this, in which so many things can go wrong, his skills as a visual stylist and storyteller overcome his weaknesses in the casting department, even if only barely. He has made two movies in New Zealand in the 12 years since its release, neither of which has been released in US theaters. An idiosyncratic auteur, he deserves wider recognition. Few other directors would muster the ambition to depict heaven and hell, let alone issue a compelling, original vision. For that reason alone, American audiences deserve to see more of his work.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.