What Dreams May Come

Directed By: Vincent Ward

Starring: Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Annabella Sciorra, and Max von Sydow

"Sometimes, when you win, you lose."
-Annie Nielsen (Annabella Sciorra)

As I've listened to different media personalities and fans around the world express their love for Robin Williams this month, they've all mentioned a handful of films they treasure in particular.  They've mentioned films like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, and Awakenings.  One film I've frequently heard mentioned is Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come.  I find this to be tragically ironic given both the circumstances of Williams's passing and the film's premise.  Unfortunately, we're all too aware that Williams took his own life by hanging himself.  With this in mind, the last thing we should want to see is a film starring Williams in which one of the characters takes her own life and winds up in hell for doing so.  As it stands, what I consider to be just a decent film has created a surprising nostalgia amongst many of his fans.

On vacation in Switzerland, physician Christy Nielsen (Williams) and artist Annie Collins (Sciorra) meet.  Sparks immediately fly.  They marry and have two wonderful children named Ian and Marie (Josh Paddock & Jessica Brooks).  Life is romantic and heavenly for the two lovebirds until it isn't.  Tragedy strikes when Ian and Marie are killed in a car accident.  After four years, they overcome Annie's mental breakdown and dodge what would have been a devastating divorce.  As fate would have it, Chris then dies in another tragic car accident.  Annie is now all alone and has no one left in the world.

A deceased Chris's spirit awakens to discover all that has happened and witnesses Annie's suffering up close and personal.  His former patient Albert Lewis (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) lets him know that lingering in the physical world after death can only prolong her grief and anguish.  After trying and failing to console Annie in spirit time after time, Chris finally decides to go to heaven.  For him, this just so happens to be a canvas Annie painted of where they first met in Switzerland.  As fate would have it, Annie's life is cut short as well.  Unlike Chris and the kids, however, her death is at her own hands, which means that she must go to hell.  Suicide violates the natural order of things.  Determined not to see his wife suffer like this, Chris opts to journey to hell to try to get Annie out.  For assistance, he reaches out to the Tracker (Max von Sydow).

In the fantasy drama What Dreams May Come, thought is real; it's the physical that is an illusion.  With this in mind, Vincent Ward's twisted romance is a bit paradoxical in a sense.  On one hand, his film has a plethora of deep, rather depressing themes with tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.  On the other, Ward's film hits moviegoers over the head with metaphor after metaphor played out in the most physical of ways.  I appreciate that he's weaving a tale about that place beyond the physical world.  However, doing so in a grandiose, bombastic way takes away from the seriousness of the film.  I'd recommend a bit more subtlety in his use of symbols.

The single most ostentatious creative decision by Ward is also the one for which others have lauded him — his unique visuals.  There aren't streets of gold in Ward's depiction of heaven, but there might as well be given the colorful, canvas-like visuals he utilizes.  The same can be said for hell.  The problem with this imagery is that it's overkill and undermines the film's central theme that thought matters most.  The colorful world of the afterlife borders on being silly and childlike, which is not exactly what's needed to make this heavy drama visually compelling or thought-provoking.  Moreover, Ward’s visuals don't fit with the rest of the film thematically despite being fairly impressive and aesthetically pleasing.   In fact, they are emblematic of Ward's heavy-handed symbolism and actually detract from the film.

Despite my gripes with the directing in the film, the acting isn't too bad.  Anytime Robin Williams portrays a doctor, good things happen on the big screen.  As Christy Nielsen, Williams once again gives us a warm, deeply passionate soul who shares great romantic chemistry with Annabella Sciorra's Annie.  For her part as his great love, Sciorra gives us a warm, loving character with a certain rawness and fragility that comes front and center as tragedy strikes again and again.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. is a bit too jovial for his depiction of Albert Lewis, but Max von Sydow brings just the right amount of caustic wit to the film as the Tracker.

As I mentioned at the start of the review, What Dreams May Come wouldn't be my first choice from Robin Williams's illustrious filmography.  It's a sad film in which Vincent Ward bashes moviegoers over the head with metaphors.  Decent performances from the cast don't elevate the film to greatness.  As it stands, What Dreams May Come gets a 0.06% rating.  Sometimes when you lose with the movie itself, you win with a few glasses of Merlot.