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WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

by: Scott Renshaw

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, a sort of post-mortem romantic fantasy-drama, shows us a world which is unlike any we've seen before on screen. Oh sure, plenty of films have ventured into the realms of the afterlife, from the sublime (DEFENDING YOUR LIFE) to the ridiculous (JACOB'S LADDER). This, however, is a heaven of a different, considerably gaudier color. It's the heaven created by Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), a pediatrician who dies in an auto accident. Torn from his wife and soul-mate Annie (Annabella Sciorra), Chris finds the transition easier when his personal Paradise, complete with the family dog, resembles one of Annie's oil paintings -- bright, shimmering and fairly sticky, since it is actually composed of oil paint.

Those scenes in Chris's heaven-of-his-own-making highlight WHAT DREAMS MAY COME at its finest, creating spectacularly imaginative visions of the Next World. Production designer Eugenio Zanetti (Academy Award winner for RESTORATION), in conjunction with the special effects team, conjures up impressionist landscapes, a golden city on a hill, and visions of eternal torment which are genuinely transporting. Unfortunately, those same scenes also highlight the film's most glaring weakness. As Chris explores the new world of his afterlife, he is instructed first by his one-time medical mentor Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) then by a mysterious Tracker (Max Von Sydow) in various rules and regulations. They explain what Chris can do, and why, what he can't do, and why, how he might want to proceed on his journey of discovery, and why. And WHAT DREAMS MAY COME grinds...to...a...halt.

It's an inevitable part of metaphysical fantasies like this that someone has to bring the audience up to speed on exactly what they're seeing and why. That doesn't make it any less tedious, especially when WHAT DREAMS MAY COME isn't supposed to be about what makes particular cosmic gears turn the way they do. Based on a novel by science fiction/fantasy legend Richard Matheson, it's a story of intense human emotions, and the desire of one soul to make right in death what went wrong in life. The scenes of Chris's earthly life with his family, strewn throughout the film in a near-subliminal series of flashbacks, form a potent back-story of a life which isn't as suburban-ideal as it first appears. There's something compelling about the suggetion that love doesn't have to be perfect to be powerful.

Those emotions should have carried WHAT DREAMS MAY COME to a transcendent level, if not for those nagging distractions. It's not just the constant exposition which causes the problems, either. An even bigger distraction is Robin Williams, whose performance can't quite capture the aching love he's supposed to be feeling. Williams is certainly a fine performer, but there are times when he's giving a "serious" performance that he looks like he's trying way too hard. The furrows in his brow, the perpetually fidgeting lip and the over-dramatized line readings turn too many interpersonal moments into exercises in How Not to Act on the Big Screen. Annabella Sciorra's convincing anguish could have grounded the story in heart-breaking reality if Williams hadn't kept pulling it into melodrama.

Eventually, reality gives way entirely to a re-telling of the Orpheus myth, with Chris searching for Annie's doomed soul on a journey through the Other Place. Again, the marvelous look of the film draws you in, as Annie's shattered mindscape takes the form of the Nielsens' home turned a desolate grey. And again, a viewer is pulled away from the look of the film by tortuous exposition and emotional confrontations which only feel genuine on one side. WHAT DREAMS MAY COME will likely wring tears from those entranced by the GHOST-like prospect of romance beyond the pale. For others, it will seem like a missed opportunity. If a tale of primal fears and primal emotions can't grab you w

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