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Every once in a while, movie critics have to stop being such over-intellectual whiners and just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures. I say this because that's the way to get through such an emotional ordeal as "What Dreams May Come," a movie flawed in structure, but soaring in theme. Reviewing a fantasy like this is a little like somebody asking you if their girlfriend is pretty; it's just too subjective, and you'll almost always get yourself into trouble.
The story, told mostly in vignettes and flashbacks, goes like this: pediatrician Robin Williams falls in love with his soul mate, sweetly rendered by Annabella Sciorra. They have two kids who meet tragedy, then Williams himself succumbs to a car accident. Thrust into a heaven of his own making, he leaves it all to find his wife, residing in Hell, even though every indication says that he must fail. "Dreams" is based very loosely on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—you may remember it as the one where Orpheus descends to Hell and must sing to get his wife back, and Hades agrees, as long as he leaves Hell without looking behind him, and of course, he looks back, and...well, these Greek stories never end well, do they? But this is Hollywood, and there's a little more hope here than that, even while this seemingly wonderful family has to endure every gruesome trauma God can throw at them.
Phrases like "tone poem" get tossed around to describe films that seem to have a stream-of-consciousness way of telling a story, but this is one case where it actually works. It's a poem in short brush strokes, as pasty and gelatinous as oil paint itself. When Robin Williams lands in heaven, backgrounded with the art his wife painted, you can taste the greens, smell the reds, feel the blues squish through your fingers. Fantasies haven't been this rich on film since Gene Wilder ate the teacup in "Willy Wonka." Thesis-writing goggleboxes will complain that the entire film exists as a Photoshop file on someone's mainframe, but this thing is just drop dead gorgeous.
Almost everything in heaven looks like a late Renaissance painting; art history majors will have a field day as they play "spot the influence"—"Dreams" is peppered with the lighting of Rembrandt, the plazas of DeChirico, Van Gogh's skies and the twisted sadness of late Goya. And for good effect, it also kind of looks like the syrup rack at the International House of Pancakes. This is a heaven of cherubs and boysenberry waffles.
So what that the iconography is suspect, and it doesn't bear analysis by either religion or logic? So it's relentlessly emotional, bereft of restraint and sometimes kind of silly. Like I say, shut off your mind and look at the pretty pictures. I cried, and you probably will too.
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