“What Dreams May Come” is a movie set almost entirely in the afterlife, and that, along with the how-deep-is-your-millennium title, should be enough to warn you that you’re in for a lavishly somber ersatz mystical tearjerker. The surprise of the movie is that it isn’t quite the abysmal New Age howler you’d expect. True, Robin Williams, as a happily married physician who dies in a freak accident, spends most of the time laughing, crying, or staring into the ether with puppyish woe, and Annabella Sciorra, as his radiant artist wife (who commits suicide in response to his death), matches him beam for wet-eyed beam. You do have to give the film this, though: “What Dreams May Come” presents the afterlife as a metaphysical Candyland, and the director, Vincent Ward, is enough of a technological mood spinner to keep the audience gawking in anticipation, if only to see what gaudy over-the-rainbow tableau the hero is going to fall into next.
As you’ve probably gathered, this isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. In the dread- suffused opening half hour, Chris and Annie Nielsen (Williams and Sciorra) lose their two children in an automobile accident. (There’s nothing quite like undersize coffins to spell unendurable tragedy.) The family dalmatian has already died, and, as if that weren’t enough, Chris violently perishes while attempting to save someone else’s life. As a ghost, he is given a voyeuristic tour of his own wake and funeral, and he then lands inside a squishy, bursting, psychedelic landscape that looks like Shangri-la as envisioned by Cezanne after one too many shots of absinthe.
In this Heaven, Chris meets an angel guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who shimmers like gold-spangled Jell-O and speaks in pop koans. “I want to see my children!” Chris cries. “When you do,” replies Albert, “you will.” (I think he means, Today is the first day of the rest of your eternity.) For all of the joys of heaven, Chris remains tormented by the family he’s lost, and, indeed, the entire picture is haunted by loss. Annie’s sinful death consigns her to the film’s equally florid, Boschian vision of hell (a field of heads poking up from the ground, and so on), and it’s up to Chris to rescue her — to reunite with his twin spirit across the cosmic stratosphere.
“What Dreams May Come is so diaphanous it practically dissolves as you watch it, yet there’s no denying that Ward, the New Zealand-born director of “The Navigator” (1989) and “Map of the Human Heart” (1993), is trying for an audacious, if rather loopy, meditation on love and transfigurement. Williams and Sciorra convince you that they’re soul mates in life and death. The two gaze at each other so longingly that it’s easy to believe they’d be happy just growing old together.
Still, if the film’s morose sentimentality sidesteps ludicrousness, it’s also not very dramatic. We feel as if we’re stuck inside a two-hour dream sequence. There’s a central contradiction in a fairy tale like this one: the film may preach to the audience about matters of the spirit, but its bejeweled special-effects vision of the afterlife can’t help but come off as aggressively literal-minded. In “What Dreams May Come,” heaven looks like nothing so much as a baroque series of progressive-rock album covers, and Robin Williams, sliding around in all that color, grows moist in the extreme. He gives an achingly sincere performance, and by the end it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this much sincerity is too much.