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Williams is Chris Nielsen, a pediatrician who lost his children in a car accident four years ago. His artist wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra) struggled with the loss, blaming herself. Now, it seems the worst is over, and they get on with their lives. Well, at least until Chris bites the dust , also in an automobile-related incident. Chris is guided into the afterlife by Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), where his personal heaven is one of his wife's paintings. However, back in the living world, Annie has a mental breakdown and commits suicide, sending her to hell (roughly speaking). Chris decides that he can't live without her and goes to the depths of the underworld to save her soul.
About the best thing I can say about What Dreams May Come is that it is beautiful. Shot on Fuji Velvia film for enhanced color saturation, the visions of the Great Beyond's brighter points are truly Elysian. Rolling hills, majestic mountains, fields of wonder - if there is an afterlife, please let it be this. Hell, on the other hand, gives Dante a run for his money. Screaming lost souls, begging for relief to the pain they themselves caused... it would be very affecting if it were part of a different movie.
The primary problem here is that the film - in both its script and direction - keeps poking the viewer with an Emotion stick, nagging him or her to start getting all soppy. "Oh, heartfelt flashback about his son," - poke. "Look, he's reunited with his daughter," - nudge. I don't know about you, but I hate being prodded. I start getting really resentful of the attempted manipulation.
Plus, it's not like the cast actually tries to ease the sentimental goading. Robin Williams is a fine comedian, I'll give him that. However, the same principles that rule humor do not apply to drama, something Williams ignores completely. You cannnot "work a room" for deep emotional reactions, or, if you can, it requires something different from what Williams is giving. We're not being drawn in as we should be. In fact, Williams appears to wield the aforementioned Emotion Stick and pushes us away.
The supporting players are completely worthless here. I could almost see the director saying before an important shot, "Alright, folks. This one's for the Golden Raspberry!" Cuba Gooding, Jr. is especially problematic. When he's good, he's quite interesting to watch. However, when he falls victim to the prevalent trend of overacting, he's unbearable. Max von Sydow, as Williams' guide to the underworld, looks embarrased about some of the trite lines he's forced to spout. His heart isn't quite in the production, which makes him easier to watch than those who are putting in way too much.
What Dreams May Come tries very hard to pull us into its world of soul-searing love. However, you can't feel anything that intense about characters that annoy you on the most fundamental levels of consciousness. Dreams comes in with some great visuals and intriguing ideas. However, it then mercilessly stuffs them into a mold of cinematic pap.