Released a few months prior to one of Robin Williams' last big hits, Patch Adams, this was a big artistic statement about death that kind of landed with a thud, and has never quite recovered. I kind of figured this was my kind of movie from the start, but for whatever reason I've only just sat through the whole thing. Call it confirmation bias if you like, but yeah, I loved it.
What Dreams May Come is the story of a man who dies and discovers the afterlife is an unexpected window into not only the way he lived, but his family as well. He appears in a full-scale version of a painting his wife made years ago (honestly, this is one of the great pieces of artistry in film, without any danger of overdoing it). He eventually meets his son and daughter, who appear into different, and surprising, guises. They both died in a car crash years earlier, and the grief sent their parents in different directions as they struggled to cope. After Williams dies, his wife commits suicide, which ends up informing the rest of the movie.
I don't know, I think this movie was simply released at the wrong time. Culturally, we'd stopped accepting the Christian view as the dominant outlook on life, and so a movie that accepted a generally Christian view of the afterlife couldn't have been received comfortably. The same thing happened because it was a Robin Williams movie, because critics had kind of decided they were over him. His supporting turn in Good Will Hunting was basically the last time they liked him (other than a few later roles, in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, where he played psychopaths, which was about as far against type as he could get). Critics also didn't particularly care for Cuba Gooding, Jr., whose own Oscar win (Jerry Maguire) marked the only time they liked him (despite a lot of good work following his breakthrough, including the equally critically hapless but no less brilliant Instinct).
Chances are you won't be thinking of whether you care about a Christian view of the afterlife, or whether you always liked Robin Williams or Cuba Gooding, Jr. If you've seen What Dreams May Come for yourself, what did you even think about it? Was it a movie you found easy to dismiss because it seemed so easy to dismiss?
For me, I always liked how bold it was, unafraid to take a look at the moodier side of Williams, which in dramas usually meant he had a beard and acted solemn (this was a good mode for him; see Awakenings, for instance). Like Patch Adams, though, Williams was able to bring out his playful side in What Dreams May Come. It may not have been a mistake these two are often seen paired together in home video release. These are human portraits. Where Patch Adams played up the comedy, What Dreams May Come plays up the tragedy.
(Fitting, for a movie that in its title alludes to Shakespeare.)
To watch it was to see how intricate the story was, too. The reveals of who two of Williams' guides are, and why they chose these guises, are just two of the wonderful surprises in the story, which never really flirts with the obvious risk of melodrama for this kind of movie. It's all pretty frank, and by the time we meet Max von Sydow, even wonderfully fantastical, in a way we'd have to wait for the later Harry Potter movies to see again.
Me, because of the literary tradition with Dante's Divine Comedy, I like to believe that a culture's current impression of what the afterlife looks like is a window into its soul. I don't know what the immediate reception of What Dreams May Come says about that, but the film itself bridges more than breaks the gaps that have formed between different circles of our society, and I think you only need to see it to believe that.
This is not a story about faith. It's the story of humanity, broken and then mended, and perhaps found. I think it's pretty profound, and worth considering as one of the great artistic statements of the last hundred years.