The after-life is a tricky business. Some people believe in it, some don't. And even those who do believe have very different ideas of what existence will be like "on the other side". Ghost just about got away with representing a mysterious life after death without being too offensive - although the visions of good (white) and bad (black) ghosts coming to abduct people when they died did leave a nasty taste. But the rest of the story walked the line between romance and fantasy with what, in the light of What Dreams May Come, was remarkable poise. For Vincent Ward's meander around the hereafter isn't just offensive in its morality. It's also unbelievably dull.
The richly rendered vistas illustrated on posters and trailers will undoubtedly draw people in. Hell is a gruesome sea of groaning faces and shipwrecks, while the images of Chris's DIY heaven are incredible, literally bursting with colour. All are created from scenes in his life: a lake landscape in one of his wife's paintings becomes his heavenly home, while his daughter's spinning mobile has been transformed into a fantastic city populated by flying mermaids and Victorian gentry. But striking images such as these are not enough to carry a movie. A cake that tastes of soap is still a horrible cake, no matter how beautifully decorated it is.
What Dreams May Come really is that unpleasant. The deaths of the Nielsen children, and Chris' discovery of them in Heaven, are treated as a sub-plot, while Chris' later treatment of his deceased offspring is almost callous. The biblical idea of suicides going to Hell (even if it is one of their own making), that death is the solution to a troubled life, and that tormented souls are stuck in a groaning wall for eternity hardly make for happy Boxing Day fare.
There's also a problem with the cast-ing of Williams and Sciorra; two of the least likely on-screen soul mates in film history. Williams is perhaps the biggest mistake: he's a larger-than-life character repressed by his environment, a replay of Hook's Peter Pan - but worse. Another, subtler actor may have been able to save the film, but it's unlikely that anybody could have made this material work. It's also criminal that the comic sparring between Williams and Gooding Jr is given so little screen time.
Which leaves us with this floundering effort's main fault: it's irretrievably dull. Bottom-shufflingly, snooze-inducingly, head-noddingly, mind-wanderingly dull. There are far too many awkward pauses and fades to white which drag the somnambulic fantasy out even longer and, without any engaging characters to root for, the imaginative premise totally collapses. A cast of fine actors is wasted, leaving a hollow movie-going experience in which the special effects alone hardly justify the price of a cinema ticket.
Eye-massaging visual imagery accompanies mind-numbing plot and insipid acting in this badly cast, badly directed and badly thought-out mess of a movie. Only the Oscar-worthy set design stops it being consigned directly to the dumper.