Watch four different segments of "What Dreams May Come," and one might settle on just as many contrasting interpretations of the proper genre home for the beautifully photographed, lavishly decorated $85 million movie.
Jack, a physician played by Robin Williams, and Annie, an artist portrayed by Annabella Sciorra, meet cute one summer, initially mistaking one another for Europeans -- and attempting to converse in Italian -- when their sailboats collide on a lake high in the Alps. Romantic comedy, right?
Just minutes of film time later, the couple, still very much in love, are in shock during the double funeral of their young children, killed in a highway collision while en route to school. This must be an inspirational story of emotional survival, one guesses.
Fast forward, and join Jack as he scampers across a field of vividly colored flowers that melt into goo when crushed. He flies off a cliff, and talks as he walks underwater. A bird swoops down at his command, and he crosses vast expanses in no time. It's a fantasy film?
Show up at another point, and hear a sinister-looking afterlife "tracker" (Max Von Sydow) announce: "Elevator to hell. Going up." Jack gets on board the rickety ride, bumps up against grotesquely deformed passengers and others in frightening masks, and then is forced to step across a sea of moaning, pale faces before the floor opens up beneath him. We're seeing a particularly trippy horror show, a surreal bit of psychedelia without the aid of chemicals. Correct?
"What Dreams May Come," directed by Vincent Ward ("Map of the Human Heart") and adapted by Ron Bass ("My Best Friend's Wedding") from Richard Matheson's novel of two decades ago, for better and mostly for worse is a film with an ongoing identity crisis.
Snippets of the 1989 British chiller "Paperhouse," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," reincarnation theories, and a screwy blend of New Age spirituality and New Testament definitions of heaven and hell also work their way into a sprawling story that lacks even internal logic. It's a mess.
That doesn't mean the movie can't pull heartstrings, if the steady sniffling at a recent screening was any indication. Williams and Sciorra, after all, give good chemistry, sharing laughs and intimate exchanges in a manner that suggests that the two lovers may indeed qualify as true soulmates.
"I'll cross whatever distance there is," Annie writes in her diary, on the same evening she commits suicide. Her mission in turn becomes Jack's personal vow, and he asks a heavenly friend (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for help retrieving his wife from her awful new digs.
It's a harrowing journey, one filled with delightful discoveries, spooky frights and a series of flashbacks that rather didactically dissect the nature of Jack's relationships with his wife, son and daughter.
Long after viewers may care if Annie is rescued or not, the two grieving lovers are reunited with their children and even the family dog. Color us shocked.
And they get to repeat a family mantra that's tossed around on several occasions: "Sometimes when you lose, you win." That's the kind of easily digested philosophy that the filmmakers probably ought to cling to during opening weekend.