Friday, December 23, 2016

Too much heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams dies in a car crash and ascends to heaven, while his grieving wife kills herself and gets sent to hell (mandatory for suicides – them’s the rules). Williams bravely sets out across the divide, to find her and bring her to join him in Paradise (rules aside, getting into heaven’s apparently largely a matter of who you know). As I often like to say, place your bets now on whether he makes it or not. But I was well-primed to identify with Williams’ quest, because I recently had to search for my own wife, on a Saturday afternoon in the Eaton Centre. Oh God, the crush, the airless horror of it all. I was sure I was condemned. But I found her, and somehow we escaped, maybe not with our souls intact, but with most of our money.

My lost soul

A facetious response to a crucial spiritual concept, you say? Perhaps that’s right. I am, quite certainly, a bit of a spiritual wasteland. I’m happy to admit ignorance of all the big questions, but also to admit a blithe disregard for them. Whenever I go to the zoo, I’m struck by the inadequacy of evolution as an explanation for such strange, weird beauty, but I lack the faith to believe in a single Creator. So I just amble along, presuming I know nothing.

In much the same way, I tend to shy away from any talk of “vision” or “soul” or any of that intangible inspirational stuff. My ideal image of myself, I suppose, would be as an easygoing pragmatist. I just like to get things done, in my own way, with the minimum bother to myself or to others. I’m amiable, I think, but not at all touchy-feely – actually I don’t much like to touch anyone at all except my wife (who must apparently have been on good form this week to deserve all these mentions), and I’d rather reserve all sentiment for the same recipient. As you can see, I don’t mind talking about myself to some extent, but the more superficial the better.

I’ve set all this out as a comprehensive acknowledgement that I’m not the ideal viewer for What Dreams May Come. It’s not that I couldn’t warm to the setting of heaven and hell, if there were some point to it – surrealism, or allegory, or whatever. In fact, one of my favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, moves deliciously between this world and the next. In Orphee, it’s really the weird specificity that’s so compelling – the juxtaposition of outlandish mythology (mysterious messages received on a car radio; mirrors that act as portals to hell) with moments of rustic comedy or mundane potboiler. The spirit world’s emissaries zoom around on motorcycles; the angel Heurtebise hangs around the house in an open-necked shirt. Orphee consistently evokes the strangeness of the creative muse in a way that’s still fresh and alluring.


In What Dreams May Come the only point seems to be size (it’s the Godzilla of sappy couple movies). With all the kindness I can muster, I can’t see the relationship between Williams (in one of his distinctly dull modes here) and his wife (played, sort of, by Annabella Sciorra) as more than a self-important, patently fake Hollywood invention. It’s all puffed-up talk, ponderous looks and confessions, enacted in one dreary flashback after another. Despite all the wet dialogue about their rare status as true boundary-crossing “soulmates,” the film conspicuously fails to evoke mutual delight, scintillating rapport, or any of the qualities that might send a man more than, oh, a few blocks in search of a missing spouse. It’s rather grotesque to elevate the attempted reunification of this mediocre pair to the level of Most Momentous Love Story in the History of Creation. If it were Bogart laconically trekking through a maelstrom of evil in search of Bacall, I might have considered it.

Be warned too that Williams’ journey, after all the build-up, isn’t actually that onerous. One might have thought that penetrating Satan’s empire would entail enough resistance to require, at the very least, the assistance of a Bruce Willis, but it turns out to be primarily a matter of achieving a state of mind that transcends all obstacles. This is convenient for the filmmakers, of course, because if there are no objective rules or limitations on their chosen universe, they can make any narrative leaps they like, at any point, without worrying about the normal stumbling blocks of causation and plausibility. The strange result is that it’s apparently far easier to engineer the meeting of lovers across heaven and hell than to pull off the same thing in, say, Boston (the setting of the current Next Stop Wonderland).

Chicken Soup for the Vegetarian

I should acknowledge that the film has another selling point – its computer-generated depictions of the next life. When Williams wakes up in heaven, his surroundings have the consistency of paint; they threaten to melt away as he touches them. It’s a beautiful depiction of his fantasies and dreams made real, still fragile in their newness. The film’s concept of hell is a bit more generic, but still undoubtedly unappealing (although a film less concerned about the family audience might have turned up the evidence of pain and suffering a bit, or might at least have trotted out a few more lawyers and accountants). Some critics think the movie’s visual qualities compensate for any weaknesses in the storytelling. My own view on that: if a story’s not worth telling, it’s not worth telling beautifully.

What Dreams May Come is one of the year’s most pretentious movies, somewhat laughable in its hunger for grandeur. But as I said, I’m not the spiritual type. The only one of those inspirational “Chicken Soup” books I might consider buying would be “Chicken Soup for the Chicken” (in the hope of bleak cannibalistic irony). Still, despite my distinctly earthbound soul, I’m lucky enough to know a little bit about love (there’s that woman again) and this film failed that basic test of recognition. I would have forgiven it all its missteps in depicting the big celestial canvas, if it were only truer in capturing the small intimate one.

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