August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

STARRING Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max Von Sydow, Rosalind Chao

DIRECTED BY Vincent Ward

The title may be drawn from Hamlet’s ”To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, but early on, so many people heard the first word as ”wet” that the director considered a title change. Rest easy: As Williams says, What Dreams doesn’t belong ”in the same category as Forrest Hump.”

Just what category the film does fit into is a little bit harder to discern: Based on Richard Matheson’s trippy 1979 novel, it stars Williams as a family man who dies in a car crash and ascends to heaven. Then his grief-stricken wife (Sciorra) kills herself and goes to hell, leading Williams to search for her somewhere in the great beyond. Gooding plays his angelic guide. ”It’s a fable,” ventures Sciorra, who stepped into the role after negotiations with Annette Bening fell through. ”On the other hand, it’s quite real … but in very fantastic sets and costumes.” Great. Now we get it.

For the director, the project’s amorphous nature was its toughest sell. ”I initially passed on it,” says Ward (Map of the Human Heart), who took the film to PolyGram when Dreams‘ $85 million budget scared off original distributor MGM. ”The problem was that 75 percent of the film is set in the afterlife and I couldn’t find how to realize that.” Ward ordered screenwriter Ron Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding) to overhaul his script and change Sciorra’s character from a caterer to an artist, thus providing a concrete vision of Williams’ heaven in one of her paintings.

Not surprisingly, test audiences were also prickly when faced with the suicide story line. ”Women between 25 and 35 were ‘uncomfortable with hell,”’ says Williams. ”I went, ‘You’re supposed to be.’ It’s not Beverly Hell.” Dreams’ other hurdle: inevitable comparisons to Ghost. ”The difference is,” says Ward, ”Ghost follows a person that’s left behind and this follows someone into the afterlife.” Not only that, says Sciorra, ”there’s no pottery in this movie.” (Oct. 2)

THE LOWDOWN Heaven-and-hell morality meets New Age spirituality. Is it a match made in heaven or … ?

Annabella Sciorra,
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