STARRING: Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max von Sydow, Rosalind Chao, Jessica Brooks, Josh Paddock

1998, 113 Minutes, Directed by: Vincent Ward

What Dreams May Come is weird: it's like a made-for-TV "disease of the week" movie, whose budget was suddenly inflated a hundred-fold by some fluke accident in the accounting department.

"Disease of the week" movie? Yeah, okay, so no-one in What Dreams. . . actually dies of any obscure disease, but the movie has enough people dying left, right and centre with teary-eyed and soppy sentimentality thrown in to make it one. You can just imagine the screenwriters going: "We have to really tug hard at audiences' heart strings to make them get out those hankies," one would say. "Yeah, yeah, let's have some more people die," the other one would reply.

And there we have it: first the couple played by Robin Williams and Sciorra's two kids die together in an automobile accident. Then Robin Williams dies in yet another car crash, so that only Sciorro is the only surviving member of this particular nuclear family who should have converted to public transport instead at the first sign of trouble but didn't. What are the odds of that happening? Of having the people closest to you all die in two separate car crashes? One I can understand, but two? That's too contrived. And then Sciorra, stricken by grief, commits suicide . . .

"Made-for-TV 'disease of the week' movie, whose budget was inflated by some fluke in the accounting department!"

In the meantime, the Robin Williams character has gone to heaven. Heaven, by the way, features none of the usual sterile white background clichés (as if they've come across leftover sets from THX-1138) we've come to expect from Hollywood movies such as A Life Less Ordinary. No, heaven is what you make of it - you determine your own reality. The Williams character sees heaven as one of his (then still alive) wife's paintings, and that it is, right down to everything still being wet with oil paint!

This is where that accounting error comes in. "Look at this money," I can imagine the producer say. "What shall we do with it all?" To which the director no doubt replied: "I know, let's spend it on special effects!"

And the money was well spent to be honest! What Dreams May Come's budget clocked in at $80 million and every cent of it can be seen on the screen. In fact the movie's visuals are brilliant and stunning - even when limited to the confines of the small screen (unfortunately I saw it on video) - and are worth the price of admission or rental alone. New Zealand director Vincent Ward (whose Navigator - A Medieval Odyssey were also marked by an assured visual sense) throws at the audience classical paintings come to full life. The scenes of heaven are inspired by renaissance painters, the Pre-Raphaelites and even Hallmark greeting card kitsch. Hell is Bosch crossed with Dali.

What Dreams May Come is eye-candy to be sure, and one feels tempted to fast forward past the teary-eyed padding in-between that make up the bulk of the story. Before you accuse me of being cynical and jaded, my wife who simply isn't, said she also found the story to be emotionally uninvolving.

Perhaps it is the story's general contrivedness or the fact that none of the characters in it seemed real. Instead they seem like idealized non-entities. (If you're looking for an excellent love story with some real people also dealing with the loss of beloved ones, check out Truly Madly Deeply.)

If you, like me, can't stand Robin Williams' usual over-the-top manic exuberance, then rest assured that he is much more subdued in What Dreams May Come. Instead he is more, well, teary, pretty much like everybody else in this movie. Ultimately What Dreams May Come tries too hard at eliciting an emotional response, yet, it is worth seeing just for those gorgeous and sumptuous visuals . . .

Oh yeah, What Dreams May Come is "inspired" by a novel of the same title by Richard Matheson who also wrote The Incredible Shrinking Man.



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