By Leslie C. Halpern
Like most movie lovers, I was deeply saddened at the recent death of Robin Williams. Voted Funniest Man Alive by Entertainment Weekly in 1997, he also mastered challenging dramatic roles in Good Will Hunting (for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), Dead Poet’s Society, and What Dreams May Come.
Although it may not be his most memorable role to others, his portrayal of Chris Neilson in What Dreams May Come stands out most to me. In the 1998 film, Williams plays a man who dies from a car accident and finds himself wandering around heaven. When he learns that his grieving wife committed suicide shortly after his death, he searches for her. But alas, she is not in heaven. As someone who took her own life, she is committed to an eternity in hell (according to the film, anyway). Chris risks the same fate as his wife by searching for her in the underworld, yet continues the pursuit in hopes of taking her back to heaven with him.
This tear-jerking drama is not the kind of movie I typically seek out. Yet, I was researching dream sequences in movies for my book Dreams on Film at that time, and a friend had recommended this movie as having breathtaking dreams. In fact, there are none. It’s loaded with colorful dreamlike visions of heaven and hell, but in terms of actual characters sleeping or having altered states of consciousness – nope, not one.
I didn’t know this when I rented the movie, however. Based on my friend’s recommendation, I went to Blockbuster and rented the film for several days of repeated viewing and analysis. From the first few minutes of the film until the final credits, I either cried, sniffled, or sobbed. My eyes watered so much I could hardly see the television screen at times. Robin Williams nailed the part of the loving husband who would do anything to reunite with his beloved wife in the afterlife; Annabella Sciorra was lovely as his distraught spouse; and the romanticism of it all relentlessly triggered my tears for nearly the entire 113 minutes.
This sob fest induced a ferocious migraine, which made me stop at the pharmacy on the way back to the video store. With red-rimmed eyes and puffy cheeks, I couldn’t return that movie fast enough. Two hours after renting it, I returned to the store doing something I’ve never done before: Asking for my money back. The big sign hanging by the cash register guaranteed customers could get a refund if they didn’t love each movie they rented. As the migraine medicine cost about $6.00, I thought that was a fair exchange. The clerk told me no one had ever asked him for a refund before. Well, it was a first for me, as well.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that I didn’t “love the movie.” It was more that I hated the headache. As strange as it sounds, with meds in mouth and refund in hand, my throbbing migraine from watching What Dreams May Come was actually a tribute to the film’s quality and a testament to Robin Williams’s extraordinary talent.