The best thing about What Dreams May Come is that its title sounds like a porn parody of itself. I guess it also has the distinction of not being the worst movie in which Robin Williams plays a doctor, though I'd say What Dreams May Come is almost as terrible as Patch Adams-perhaps even more disappointing, if you consider all the potential it squanders.
What Dreams May Come is based on the book by Richard Matheson, who is known for I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. He might also be known for What Dreams May Come, if the film adaptation hadn't been such a worthless piece of crap. Matheson's book, though fiction, was based on extensive research about cultural beliefs of the afterlife. In the movie version of What Dreams May Come, heaven is a really dull acid trip.
Williams plays Chris Nielsen, patriarch of a family with extraordinarily bad luck. Before the credits are even over, his two kids Ian and Marie are killed in a car accident. We later learn that following this, his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) fell into a deep depression, threatened divorce, and attempted suicide. Four years after his children's death, Chris is also killed in a car accident, driving Annie to take her life. The real drama, however, takes place in Heaven-where Chris gets to frolic in his wife's paintings-and Hell-where Annie is doomed to suffer in eternity for disturbing the natural order. It's a family film, you guys.
The tone of the movie is one of its biggest problems: most of the time it wavers between absurdly dark and way too light. Do we really need to zoom into the coffin at the kids' funeral and see Ian's lifeless corpse? Probably not. But then, we didn't need to watch a flying turquoise bird poop a bucket of paint on Chris' head either. See, there's a balance to things. What Dreams May Come has no idea what it's doing, so we're forced to suffer through Cuba Gooding, Jr. literally dancing on water, and Max von Sydow being Max von Sydow. Just kidding, he plays Sigmund Freud.
But what really grinds my gears is the movie's confusing, contradictory, and-most importantly-stupid internal logic. Let's talk about Heaven: it's a place you create with your mind. As Albert (Gooding, Jr.) puts it, "Here is big enough for everyone to have their own private universe." Except everyone creates their own version, which makes things pretty lonely. Apparently souls can travel between heavens, though this is never properly explained, and why anyone would want to live in the paint-drenched world Chris imagines is beyond me. Seriously, you can't touch anything without getting crap all over your hands.
Then there's the fact that Chris' dead children choose to look totally different in Heaven. Marie is a Singaporean flight attendant named Leona, while Ian is-spoiler alert-disguised as Albert. Why? Because, he says, our physical appearances get in the way of who we really are to each other. Um, OK, but that still doesn't explain why Marie wants to look like a flight attendant her dad smiled at once. (Vaguely creepy, right?) And Ian decides to be Albert, a man with whom Chris had a close friendship. Clearly Chris has associations with that body. Whatever. I guess it's no weirder than the real Albert taking on the appearance of Freud.
Hell is where What Dreams May Come really lost me-or, OK, lost me for the sixth or seventh time. Ian/Albert says that hell is not a judgment: it's simply for people who don't know they're dead. Suicides violate the natural order and can't accept what they've done, so that's where they end up. This is really harsh, and also entirely nonsensical. Annie violates the natural order by killing herself, but it was totally natural for her husband and kids to be killed in separate car accidents? Chris is crushed by a car, sent flying through a tunnel in an explosion-just the way God intended. And how do suicides not know they're dead? These are the only people who choose when to die. Wouldn't a couple kids who died on impact with a semi be a little less accepting of their untimely demise?
Also, if Hell isn't a judgment, how come it's so awful? Despite Ian/Albert's insistence that it's not the way you picture it, Hell is filled with fire and brimstone-not to mention lost souls with their heads stuck in the ground. That's right, you have to step on their faces to get through. Everything is freakish and distorted, and there's an overwhelming sense of dread. It reminded me of something Julie Taymor would create, though perhaps a bit more restrained. It's worth noting that in the book, Annie (called Ann) is only in Hell for 24 years. A long time, to be sure, but nothing compared to eternity.
The ending of What Dreams May Come is supposed to be happy, I guess: Chris finds Annie in Hell and takes her back to Heaven. Why no one else in afterlife history has been able to do this is not explained. With the entire family reunited, the happy couple decides to ditch their kids and get reincarnated back on earth. Which is pretty fucked when you think about it. Yeah, they'll be back eventually, but the new Chris and Annie will have their own kids and live out whole lives. Are they really going to give a shit about Ian and Marie when they return?
It's an ill-conceived conclusion to an ill-conceived film. The original ending is actually a bit darker and more interesting, but you'd have to seek out the DVD for that. Wait until you're dead and have all the time in the world.
In Pop Punishment, Louis Peitzman endures the most derided genre films and television, all for your sadistic pleasure. Need more punishment? Follow Louis on Twitter.