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Robin's Bogus Journey
[whitespace] What Dreams May Come
Even Deader Poets Society: Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra triumph over afterlife adversity in 'What Dreams May Come.'

'What Dreams May Come' needs to get an afterlife

By Zack Stentz

DANTE SHOULD SUE. For although the new film What Dreams May Come has the good sense to nick its storyline (questing hero and wise guide search heaven and hell for the soul of hero's beloved) from the Divine Comedy and boasts some truly spectacular visual effects, the storytelling is less than heavenly.

The problem isn't in the subject matter. The journey to the afterlife has provided a framework for compelling stories, from Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey all the way to Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. And the setup is good as well: Chris (Robin Williams) loves his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), so much that when he's sent to heaven and she to hell, he won't rest until they're reunited.

So far so good. But in giving Chris and Annie an impossibly idyllic relationship and presenting a fuzzy, nonjudgmental afterlife to greet them, the script never builds enough doubt and danger into their engineered separation. And if only Ronald Bass' screenplay conveyed the heartbreak of Truly Madly Deeply or the wit of Defending Your Life, instead of contenting itself with New Agey preaching about imagination and taking a back seat to director Vincent Ward's admittedly lovely imagery.

As it is, the closest thing to humor on display is the sly casting of Max von Sydow as a cryptic afterlife guide and tracker. It looks as if that famous chess match with Death in The Seventh Seal turned out all right after all.

Williams, on the other hand, passes up all opportunities to unleash his maniacally funny side and start a comic riff on the afterlife. Instead of the court jester on meth from Aladdin and Good Morning, Vietnam, we get the oh-so-earnest Williams of Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, the one who crinkles up his eyes and beams at the camera with a "love me!" gaze that's downright frightening in its neediness.

All of this would have been forgivable, though, had the filmmakers delivered the big emotional payoff of seeing Chris defy the powers of heaven and hell to reach his wife. But despite some genuinely startling images (a derelict aircraft carrier as hell's gate, walking across the ribbed ceiling of an upside-down gothic cathedral) Chris' trip to hell turns out to be significantly less scary than your average Marilyn Manson video.

And rather than duke it out with Death like Hercules in the Alcestis myth or sing to the damned souls like Orpheus, what do we get as the big cathartic moment? More New Age babble about self-forgiveness and understanding. It's enough to make Milton poke his eyes out, were he not blind already.

In the end, though, what kills What Dreams May Come isn't fuzzy metaphysics but rather a tone that seems less eager to tell a story than to simply let the characters ooh and aah at the pretty scenery. As the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail said upon seeing Camelot, "It's only a model."

What Dreams May Come (PG-13; 113 min.), directed by Vincent Ward, written by Richard Matheson, photographed by Eduardo Serra and starring Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra.

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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