Since I just finished watching Dragonfly, I figured I may as well face this, the other nauseatingly sappy late-90s metaphysical romance. This one looked even worse, however, as it stars Robin Williams—still wanted in many countries for crimes related to Patch Adams—Annabella Sciorra, who enjoyed a brief and inexplicable period of popularity in the early 90s, and paragon of lost potential, Cuba Gooding, Jr. This one looked to continue William’s foray into sickeningly smarmy sentimental bullshit, but DID promise to have numerous special effects, and IS from a story by Richard Matheson, of everything from The Incredible Shrinking Man to I Am Legend, so maybe it would be somewhat tolerable? Turns out not, but there is enough of Matheson’s grim and hard-edged sensibility that hasn’t been plastered over with gooey hearts and flowers and puppies and chocolate kisses to make one understand what this story COULD have been, and the kinds of darkness and real human suffering it is hiding under lacy red paper valentines and rose petals.
The DVD opens by presenting you with a choice—but giving you no indication of what each choice is! Raising the stakes, there’s an angel on one side, and the fires of hell on the other—with the choices on the top and bottom, not necessarily related to either. Is this the most existential DVD menu of all time? Why, I think it must be. I chose the lower option, and think I may have seen a slightly longer “director’s cut” or something—hell if I know! It is SO much like life! We make our choices, not having all the information, and then we have to proceed, never knowing what might have been, had we chosen the other path. Holy shit, I’m getting more out of this mislabeled DVD menu than I am the entire movie.
So first thing Chris Nielson [Williams] and Annie [Sciorra] meet-cute in Italy or somewhere when her boat knocks into his. Then he’s having a picnic by himself on the side of a totally gorgeous mountaintop miles away from the nearest inhabitant when—why, LOOK who he just happened to run into! Amazing. So they’re both on vacation by themselves and just havin’ the best time? I mean, not to say that you can’t, but most people aren’t THAT absolutely delighted with life when they’re picnicking and boating all alone with no one to share it with. But I guess these two are. You’ll also notice that Sciorra has been told to be “radiant” at all costs, and she’s just a’laughin’ and tossin’ her hair like nobody’s business. Meanwhile Williams is outfitted with these nightmare bangs and you’re sitting there like “NO, are we going to have to look at that hairdo through the entire movie?” but no, it’s just supposed to be his younger self. Your hair is fluffier when you are younger, as scientists have known for years.
Before you know it, poof, they’re married and—JESUS CHRIST, LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT KITCHEN!! I mean, what the fuck? Did they move in when the Addams Family moved out? The whole house, whenever we see it, is just ginormous. Now, I just watched Dragonfly, as I said, which also featured a ludicrously huge house, which makes me realize that a theme of late-90s movies are these insanely huge houses. Anyway, our happy couple now have two freshly-scrubbed boys who you know are slated for death when Chris’ goodbye kiss to one of them falls into slow-motion. Next thing you know, you’re staring at two coffins. Then, boom, four years later, when Chris is now a warm, snuggly doctor who uses goofy humor to reach his patients—why, not unlike Patch Adams!—and Annie has cut her hair short and is now both a curator [or something] at San Francisco MoMA, and a painter of treacly works in her own right. It’s their special “Double-D” anniversary. You know, I bet we’re going to find out what that means toward the end of the film! And truthfully, I don’t think it’s going to have to do with bra size. No, there’s some sort of car accident, and Chris gets out and runs to help someone, wherein HE gets hit by a car and—poof, straight to heaven. You don’t think he’s going anywhere but heaven when he dies helping total strangers who’ve had a car accident, do you? Though it would be awesome if he did. Just for shits and giggles.
So first he’s on this hillside with a blurry angel at his side and sees Annie at his grave. Look at the tree on the right around 22:52 and you will see that the flowers have been digitally added to the tree—because they move as a mass, separately from the rest of the tree. Anyway, the blurry angel, which we know is going to turn out to be Cuba Gooding Jr. once he comes into focus, turns out to be an angel of exposition, since his role is to hang around explaining all the numerous rules and regulations that govern the afterlife. Seriously, the place is more legislated than Washington, DC. Anyway, Chris sees his own funeral and tries to communicate with Annie, but is told that his presence only hurts her, so he finally gives up and shuffles off to heaven, which is where the special effects start exploding.
So Chris wakes up in a field of what we’re supposed to understand are painted flowers, i.e. he is INSIDE a painting, and when he reaches out and squishes them his hands get covered in paint. Here is where you can see a lot of special effects effort was put into creating this world of a painting, and apparently they studied a lot of old masters and impressionist paintings in order to get the look right. For example, if you look at the shot here, you can see that it is clearly trying to approximate a sky as painted by Van Gogh. I appreciate that, and I don’t mean to be ungenerous, but… it just looks like they kind of blurred and pixellated some flowery environments, not really like they’re a painting come to life. It also looks like the painting they were primarily imitating was Thomas Kinkade. Which is all kind of a shame, since if you watch the DVD extra on the special effects you realize what a lot of effort went into creating it. Anyway, now Gooding is in focus and is called Albert, a patient Chris treated back in the day. He uses his advanced powers of exposition to explain to Chris that he is creating this world himself, since heaven is a place you create out of your own mind, which means you can also do stuff like leap great distances, etc. Oh by the way, Chris’ dead dog is present as well. Then it turns out that Chris can see a tree that Annie painted AFTER his death, which means that they are so in tune, so married at the minds, etc. Albert says they’re “Soul mates…sort of like twin souls… in tune with each other.” Then Chris finds a stuffed animal and says “This belonged to my daughter,” which causes a moment of confusion, then you realize—ONE OF HIS “SONS” HAS BEEN A GIRL THIS WHOLE TIME.
SPOILERS > > >
Now, just as Annie is getting super-depressed on Earth and about to put a double-barreled shotgun in her mouth and spatter her brains across the ultra-high ceilings of their spacious home—just kidding, I have no idea how she kills herself—my DVD died! It apparently had some defect and it skipped ahead to where Albert is delivering the news. By the way, I spared you the part where Chris meets a nice Asian woman who shows him HER heaven, which isn’t too far off from his in the overdecorated department and derivation from Romantic paintings. There were other periods of art, folks! I notice no one has chosen the Anselm Keifer heaven. Nor has anyone chosen the Roy Lichtenstein heaven. She also explains that she has a JOB. Yes, people in heaven have JOBS, and have to work part-time. Holy fuck—don’t tell me heaven is a CO-OP!
Anyway, so Albert comes to tell Chris that Annie has offed herself, and is dead. Awesome, Chris says, so I’ll see her soon! But no, because Heaven Governance Article #3,562.b clearly states that if you kill yourself, you go to HELL! You won’t be able to avoid noticing how when Chris gets the news, a dark thunderstorm spreads across the horizon, then when Chris says dagnabbit, I’ma go to hell and get her and bring her back, a big beam of sunlight breaks right across his face. Albert says it’s never been done, but since they’re soulmates [and by the way, NO ONE ELSE in heaven but these two perfectly generic yuppies are soulmates] it just might work, and dammit, he’s comin’ along!
So they go meet Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick. Actually it’s Max Von Sydow as the Tracker, but let’s just call him Professor Plum, it’s more fun. Of course you know that the WHOLE reason it’s Von Sydow and not Duane “The Rock” Johnson or, say, Mandy Moore is that Von Sydow famously played chess with death in The Seventh Seal. From that to this—what a legacy! Although it must be said that Von Sydow is quite good and brings a needed gravity to his scenes. But they come to meet him like he’s some kind of secret agent in a library and—does heaven really have secret agents that lurk in libraries? If it does, surely it has drug dealers as well, no? Bounty hunters? Are there heavenly bounty hunters? Holy shit—I think I just invented an exciting new television action-drama.
So Chris is all DETERMINATION! He’s like the George W. Bush of heavenly husbands, and this movie’s “Never give up at any cost!” ethic IS related to the ol’ American value that results in “Stay The Course [at any cost].” He is informed rather harshly that people in Hell don’t know they’re dead, and that Annie won’t recognize him and he won’t be able to make her, and he certainly won’t be able to bring her back, so really the only point of the whole trip is just to make HIMSELF feel better that he didn’t give up. Chris says sure, whatever, I’ve got nothing else on my plate.
By the way, structure-minders, you’ll note that it is exactly at the one-hour mark, that is, the PRECISE midpoint of the film, that they leave heaven and head for hell. Here is where everything I thought was good about this film happens, but again, it is primarily glimpses of what COULD have been good, buried under a whole lot of dreary mainstream blockbuster sentimentality. They go down a long hallway, with a violently tossing, black ocean beyond. The water is full of moaning, corpse-white bodies of people reaching for the boat and finally capsizing it, sending everyone into the water… where Chris starts to have more flashbacks to emotional scenes with his son. By the way, I have skipped over that Chris has been having a bunch of flashbacks already, and will continue to go on having more and more.
And for a while, it’s quite frustrating, because the visions of hell are quite evocative and intriguing—suddenly all of the syrupy sentiment of the first half is drawn away and things get really grim—but we constantly keep cutting away from them to go into a flashback. And the flashbacks are really banal and emotional, so they’re more frustrating then anything. Still, at the same time, you can kind of see what this film is going for—that “hell” is remaining mired in the bad memories, the painful moments in the past, and giving up hope. We also start to see that Chris’ memories at this point start drifting almost exclusively to his son, and starts forgetting about his wife! Which we can’t be sure is exactly the way hell supposedly makes you go insane, which is intriguing. Turns out it’s not, though.
After a long flashback in the rain, in which we’re supposed to shake our heads at the tragedy of a father-son relationship gone wrong—but in fact demonstrates an exemplary father-son relationship of uncommon communication prowess and nimble compromise—we come back and JAWS DROP as this movie makes it out that Cuba Gooding. Jr., IS Chris’ long-lost son! There was something about reincarnation in there that explains why he looks different. This will cause you to be treated to the sight of these two guys who we understood as separate, non-related adults now hugging and weeping all over each other and frankly, it’s a bit jarring. Not to mention that this whole story element comes out of nowhere, seems to be one story strand too many [and comes with still more RULES!], and requires a fair amount of re-adjustment of expectations, despite the fact that, in most films, the rules are all laid out by now and we should just be settled in comfortably and watching the story unfold. Anyway, after this we bid Cuba goodbye for now, and uh, yeah... totally great seeing you, but, um, yeah, BYE.
But there are some decent hellish visions we have skipped over, like this whole area of sunken ships that are still on fire [it’s a cross between Pearl Harbor and Waterworld], and my fave, this endless pavement made of human faces, as though all these people are immobilized and trapped, eternally suffering, in this spiritual gunk. This is what I mean when I talk about “resonant images,” because just looking at it evokes a lot of your own thoughts about what it could all be about. Unfortunately, we don’t get to stay very long with this or any of the awesome hellish images because they keep getting interrupted by dreary sentimental flashbacks!
So finally Chris finds Annie alone in a wrecked version of their palatial home. We never find out why almost everyone else is baked into this human pavement while Annie gets a gigantic home all to herself, but there you go. She doesn’t recognize Chris, and he could agitate her too much by telling her who he is, so he tells her he just moved in next door, to which she responds “Fat fucking chance! What does this look like, Hidden Brook Glade? This is fucking HELL, douchebag!” Actually she doesn’t say that, she goes along with it. There are more flashbacks, but we finally get in to the real one. You see, after the kids died, Annie was sent to a mental hospital. Once there, she apparently chopped her hair with pruning shears, since that is apparently just WHAT YOU DO upon entering mental institutions. Wouldn’t want any mental patients that do not LOOK outwardly crazy, thank you. Anyway, Annie thought that the fact that Chris did NOT go crazy when their kids died as evidence that he didn’t love them, and therefore she doesn’t love him. Plus he looks like the guy from that wretched movie about the doctor who cures people with laughter. So one day Chris came to see her with divorce papers, and says look baby, this ain’t workin’ no mo’, and she doesn’t love him any more, so why don’t they just get divorced? Then he keeps yakking about how sorry he is, and he’s sorry that he couldn’t join her [in this lonely mental place where she has isolated herself], and I left you alone.” This finally breaks through to her [and, cynical and blasé as I’ve been, it is actually quite moving] and she tears up the divorce papers and is going to go back and join him in marriage. THIS is their “Double-D Anniversary,” and what it means. So that means she DOESN’T actually strap on huge fake boobs to please him on their special day.
Meanwhile, back in hell, Chris goes out and tells Professor Plum that dammit, if he can’t bring Annie to heaven, he’ll just stay there in hell! Problem is, in a few seconds, he’ll forget who she is. But that’s okay, they’ll live together, and get to know each other anew. But! His story about the Double-D day has finally broken through to her, and she realizes that this IS her husband. But the important thing is that this time he’s going to join HER and stay with her, as he said he failed to do back with the dead kids situation. And that THAT moment—he forgets HER! Cruel irony! So now she fights for him and—POOF!—he’s back in heaven! And whaddya know, so is she! We never really find out what happened, or how it all worked out, but there ya go. She says, rather flippantly, “Sometimes when you lose, you win!” Oh, well I guess that makes sense of it all, then. And then, just when you thought the movie couldn’t possibly torpedo itself any worse than it already has—it does!
First Annie gets to look all radiant and wear a gorgeous red dress in heaven. And she does get to live in her LITERAL dream home. And then they get their dead girl back! And then they get their dead boy back! And then—she decides that she needs to leave heaven and be reincarnated, because she needs to atone for killing herself! It all has to do with heaven’s numerous provisions and bylaws. The other thing is, it’s just one of those things where the movie takes a big turn into new territory JUST at the moment it should be wrapping up, and you’re just sitting there going “no, no, No, No, NO, NO, NO.” So then Chris decides that HE has to be reincarnated, too, and will take his chances on meeting Annie, again, which he thinks there’s a good chance of, because they’re soulmates. Then poof, and they’re both these totally white, upper middle-class toddlers out playing in their Laura Ashley outfits by the charming dock on the impossibly beautiful lake, and they meet! [WHY their parents have left these toddlers unattended in a place where they could easily fall and drown is unexplained]. So now they’re going to be soulmates from the age of three! Awwwww. That sure was easy, huh? No trouble finding each other in this great big world, was there?
But WAIT. That is the REPLACEMENT ending! And the original ending is also on the disc! And if you thought that one was bad…. In this one the kids come out, but they’re Cuba Gooding and the Asian woman I largely fast-forwarded through. They tell Annie they could appear as her kids if she wanted, but she decides they can stay in their current incarnations. Then Annie decides she wants to go back and be reincarnated—only this time, they tell her that she’ll be born to a family in some third-world country, and he’s going to meet and marry her, but she’ll die! And then he’ll be alone on Earth in his new life for 40 years! Chris says he’ll do it—because in that 40 years “I’ll have time to read.” Ummm, okay, rather than stay nice and peaceful in heaven, where he’ll have to wait about 20 fewer years before Annie shows up again? And where he is explicitly told that time will go by in a blip in the cosmic scheme of things? But no—so then we’re suddenly in a hospital, and Annie is being born in her new body! But it looks like she might die during birth! [No big, right? She’ll just be reincarnated as someone else]. Still, the film tries to generate some suspense with this, and eventually she lives, and we’re supposed to feel like everything worked out great. All I really have to say about this ending is that, you know the feeling I was mentioning last paragraph about the movie should be winding down, but suddenly darts off in a new direction? This is that X10, AND it introduces a bunch of new afterlife legislation, LONG after everyone has just shut down. So at least they realized the error of their ways and shot a new, simpler ending.
< < < SPOILERS END
Despite its legion of problems, I have fond feelings for this film. Because it’s possible to look past all the flaws and bad ideas and sentimentality and realize what the core is supposed to be—a man not accepting that he can’t be with his wife, and traveling through a literal hell [cast as a psychological journey through all the pain of his life] to bring her back. And none of it would work if the connection between them didn’t work—and I must say Matheson came up with a simple, very believable moment of total intimacy between these two—and the movie had the sense not to fuck it up. So in a way you can look through all of its problems and see the core of a good, very moving story, and enjoy the film it MIGHT have been.
That said, DANG does this thing have problems. For one, it has a lot of trouble establishing its shape, especially given that the two meet and fall in love, have two kids, the two kids die, and four years later Chris dies—all in the first fifteen minutes! Although it makes sense later in the film, when we go back and fill in all the memories. Then the heaven parts are okay and have lots of special effects, but they’re marred by massive oversentimentality, as well as the emotionally-troubling fact that Chris is super-happy in heaven, despite just dying and being separated from his wife, who we know will be the prime motivator of the movie. Then off to hell, and here is where the real frustration began for me. Of course, that’s largely because the hell elements were very GOOD, and genuinely hellish, but we keep frustratingly cutting away from them, and just for stupid flashbacks that KILL the momentum. Especially at the beginning of the hell sequence, as we’re having these memories with the kids, which seem like just so much distraction. Ultimately, I think they should have cut the kids WAY down so as not to lose focus on Chris and Annie. Then the film surprisingly starts to WORK when we get to the crucial scenes between Chris and Annie at the end, but even so, many of the rules governing what they can and can’t do are unclear. The numerous RULES governing the afterlife are also a huge problem, and just become too much for the audience to remember. Seriously, they should pair you up with a legal assistant upon death, not a buddy companion, like Chris gets. Then the movie makes missteps like not explaining how the resolution to the Annie problem could have happened. It just leaps over it and hopes we don’t care. Which of course, we don’t, by that time. And finally, as noted, the ending starts off in a new and tedious direction just as the whole thing should be winding down.
This seems like an excellent property for a remake, but it needs to be made by someone serious, and made as a dark film. I would suggest Darren Aronofsky, but I think that horrid thing The Bubble or The Tree or whatever that was constitutes his attempt at this very thing. Really, you need Ingmar Bergman. He could knock this out of the park. Actually, I have it: FASSBINDER. He would make it four to six hours long--which it needs to be--and not be afraid to be arty and depressing. Because I think for this to work, you really need to commit to its darkness, and that’s exactly what this film is afraid to do. Here the studio obviously wanted a big romantic movie they could tie into VH1 and Hallmark store promotions, and wanted to play up the happy, lovey aspects of it all. Kind of have some trouble fitting HELL into that vision, no?
Nevertheless, again, I remember this fondly. It's a bust, a near-complete failure, but it has a core of real, moving emotion and you can love it for what it attempted rather than what it achieved.
I have to say I do recommend it, it'll give you plenty to think about, despite it being a massive mess.