Judge Brendan Babish preferred his Robin Williams movies unsweetened.
After life there is more. The end is just the beginning.
Robin Williams followed his 1997 Oscar win for Good Will Hunting with What Dreams May Come, a sentimental, ethereal drama that would launch him onto a two-year stretch of pure schmaltz with the forthcoming Patch Adams, Jacob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man.
Facts of the Case
In what must be the ultimate meet-cute scenario, Chris Nielsen (Williams) is lounging on a small dingy of a ship on a picturesque European lake when his boat is rammed by Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra, Chasing Liberty), a cute American girl searching for Switzerland. Later, the two meet up on a nearby mountain, and their conversation leads to a bout of laughter that seemingly continues uninterrupted throughout their marriage ceremony and the birth and rearing of their two children. In fact the laughter only seems to stop when their son and daughter are killed in an automobile accident.
After several years of grief, Chris and Annie are just beginning to return to normalcy when Chris gets killed in another automobile accident. He finds himself in a vibrant heaven, populated by images that his still-living wife has painted. However, when Annie kills herself in despair, she does not join Chris, but is instead banished to hell. Chris cannot bear the thought of her suffering for eternity, and chooses to travel to the netherworld and rescue his soul mate.
What Dreams May Come has some special meaning for me. It was released shortly after I joined the writing staff of my college newspaper and was the first film I ever reviewed. Though I was excited to have my ramblings finally in print, I was also eager to watch what seemed to me one of the most intriguing movies I had ever heard of. Not only were both Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. hot off their Academy Award victories, but they seemed to put their Oscar cache to good use: What Dreams May Come looked like the kind of bold, nontraditional storytelling that, if rewarded by the box office, might set off a new golden age of commercial cinema.
Keep in mind, back then I hadn't yet learned to rein in my expectations. And boy was I disappointed. Instead of a spiritual exploration of love and mortality what I got was a shallow, saccharine romance and an incomprehensible glimpse of the afterlife.
However, almost a decade later What Dreams May Come is released on HD DVD, and I was eager to give it another chance. I thought perhaps my unrealistic expectations ruined the experience for me the first time. With lowered expectations I might be able to tolerate the sentimentality and perhaps even enjoy the exquisite visuals (the film actually won an Oscar for best visual effects).
But no such luck. If anything, my intervening experience with Robin Williams and his almost endless series of overwrought performances (with Patch Adams a particularly egregious offense), has worn away at my resistance to bathos. And my resistance kicked in early with What Dreams May Come. Shortly after Chris and Annie meet, there is a montage featuring shots of the happy couple laughing while walking each other down the aisle (shouldn't Annie's father, or some male relative, have done that?), and then laughing with their children while washing a car and spraying each other with the hoses.
The hose shots are indicative of what's wrong with the movie as a whole. The image director Vincent Ward (Map of the Human Heart) and screenwriter Ronald Bass (Rain Man) want to convey is that of a happy, well-functioning family. And what we get are parents and their children having the time of their lives while drenching each other with water. Now, forget the fact that it's actually annoying to be on the receiving end of a garden hose; and forget that the image of people gleefully dousing each other with water is cliché; the biggest problem with these images is that they don't tell us anything insightful about Chris and his family, individually or in their relations to each other. Familial love is a very powerful emotion, and it comes in many variants; the challenge for What Dreams May Come was to find an interesting way to present the Neilsons' specific family dynamics and show us how profound their affection for each other was; dousing each other with hoses might fit the bill for a television commercial, but not for a profound existential drama.
The portrayal of strife in the family is also overbearing. When Chris is worried about his son's poor academic performance they have an intense confrontation under a tree, in the middle of a rainstorm (not too subtle, that). But their conflict is resolved in under a minute, and ends with an improbable hug.
And if the filmmakers are so overbearing when dealing with relatively common familial emotions, how do you think they grapple with the huge issues like loss of a child or a spouse? We really don't learn much more other than the conventional understanding that death can be debilitating to those left behind. However, one of the film's few assets is that it does manage to take us to a world beyond ours, and while visiting the afterlife is hardly a profound experience, it is stunning.
In fact, the visuals alone almost single-handedly redeem What Dreams May Come. Even when the plot sputters and fails to engage, the film is usually a marvel to behold, especially during the scenes when Chris first enters heaven, and when he first enters the underworld. That said, these scenes sadly show how great What Dreams May Come could have been, if only a fraction of care that was put into the set design was put into the story.
As befitting a movie as visually rich as this, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer on this HD DVD is fantastic. The colors are clear and vibrant and the contrasts are sharp; this has got to be one of most beautiful showcases for high-def movies yet. The audio is not nearly as overwhelming, as the soundtrack is surprisingly restrained. There is a bombastic score, and some nice sound effects in the afterworld scenes, but ultimately the audio pales in comparison to the picture.
This HD DVD comes with nearly all of the extras featured in the 2005 Special Edition DVD. The most substantial of these is Ward's commentary track, which is dominated by technical aspects of the film, with sparse allusions to the movie's spiritual complexities mixed in. There are also two bland featurettes that total about 20 minutes and an alternate ending that was wisely excised.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Robin Williams has stared in more than a few great movies: Awakenings, The Fisher King, The Birdcage, and Insomnia are all personal favorites of mine. But starting with What Dreams May Come he has trended heavily towards shallow, sentimental dreck and broad comedies that are nearly unwatchable.
That said, he is still working regularly, and while his fan base has clearly shrunk, those remaining seem incredibly loyal. The people who think Williams' career peak is at some point after Good Will Hunting will probably regard What Dreams May Come as a minor classic.
While I admire the film for its bold and original idea story—which especially rare for a big budget Hollywood movie—the execution is almost tragically bland and conventional. You might as well turn off the sound and just enjoy the visuals.
Guilty of combining an intriguing premise and Oscar-winning visuals with Hallmark Hall of Fame sensibilities.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Vincent Ward
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