“Death is like being pregnant; You’re either are or you’re not.”
Would you see a movie that met any or all of these criteria?
* Stars Kevin Costner
* Is directed by the auteur who brought the world Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Patch Adams, and the TV movie Frankenstein: The College Years
* Is a shameless rip-off of What Lies Beneath and/or The Sixth Sense
* Features what can only be described as a cloyingly manipulative CG rainbow
Okay, now what if I told you that one movie could meet all those points? Step right up, my friends, because Dragonfly will meet all your Kevin Costner-starring, Tom Shadyac-directed, Sixth Sense-ripping, cloying rainbow needs!
Joe Darrow’s pregnant wife (played by the TV version of the Borg Queen, Susannah Thompson) just died while on a medical mercy mission somewhere in South America. That’s not a spoiler, because nothing can be a spoiler that happens in the first five minutes of a movie, unless the movie plays backwards and is Memento. Joe (played by a coatrack, or possibly Kevin Costner) is despondent, but deals with his ennui by becoming a reckless doctor on the edge — think Mel Gibson in the first half of Lethal Weapon, only with a single facial expression and a scalpel.
Strange things begin happening to Joe (note to screenwriters everywhere: Joe is not a very strong name for a character, and it gets grating to hear it after about 30 minutes). His wife, before her untimely passing in Act One, was a pediatric oncology doctor or somesuch — she worked with kids in the hospital. Joe visits her young charges, only to find that they already know who he is, and they’ve seen visions of Emily, who wants to tell him something. Even Joe and Emily’s pet parrot gets in on the act, freaking out when Joe shows the bird a picture of Emily next to a waterfall. Remember this, because it will be important later. Joe also has strange experiences with a dragonfly-adorned paperweight — dragonflies were Emily’s “personal totem” — which seems to have a mind of its own. Joe’s Gump-like acumen slowly puts the clues together, concluding that Emily must still be alive in South America and that she’s near the waterfall in the picture. So, off he goes to Colombia or wherever to find her!
There’s something cathartic about reviewing bad films. It’s my therapy. Allow me to exorcise at least a year’s worth of psychological trauma with this review.
I had zero faith in this film going in. Dragonfly was a dismal flop upon its theatrical release, panned critically (Rottentomatoes.com gives it a 5% on their Tomatometer — quite possibly the lowest score I’ve ever seen) and met with box office indifference (it made back half of its $60 million budget). I’m not a Kevin Costner fan. I’m definitely not a Tom Shadyac fan. I don’t normally appreciate movies made to cash in on the success of a formula. The trailers looked terrible. Not the signs to a happy viewing experience.
With some actors, you have to gauge their work by a formula. For instance, Keanu Reeves’ success in a film is inversely proportional to the intelligence of his character. A cunning Shakespearian villain in Much Ado About Nothing? Not good. A wife-beating redneck in The Gift? Best performance of his career. With Kevin Costner, his success is inversely proportional to the depth of his character’s emotions. Baseball-obsessed farmer in Field of Dreams? Not bad at all, in fact genuinely entertaining. Scarred widowed husband in Dragonfly? Wretched. At one point in his career you could say he was a movie star, an on-screen presence who carried films on the strength of his charisma. That only goes so far and only works within a certain movie framework, and all too often over the last decade Costner has tried to act, like he does here, with regretful consequences. The real problem is he has a difficult time displaying a range of emotions, or any emotions at all. Throughout Dragonfly he wears two moderately differing expressions — one looks like he’s trying to remember where he parked his Lexus, while the other looks like he’s trying to remember how to perform a bowel movement. It’s not much better when he opens his mouth. Remember Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Remember when it’s revealed that Christian Slater is his brother? He says: “I have a brother” — meant to sound puzzled. He repeats the phrase: “I have a brother” — meant to sound joyfully amazed. The only problem is, in Costner’s hands they both sound alike. It’s the same here. His enraged outburst that rival doctors (as if there could be such a thing) are going to vivisection a corpse he thinks talked to him was easily outclassed by the pathos of Adam Sandler in Big Daddy when McDonalds stopped serving breakfast a half-hour before he arrived. There’s no weight to anything he says. At the beginning of the film when he tells rescue workers that he’s not leaving until they find his wife, he has all the conviction of your local weatherman saying it might snow in July. Long story short: Not a second of his performance seems like anything other than a performance, and a poor one at that.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The Nutty Professor. Liar Liar. Patch Adams. Does this sound like the résumé of a director to whom you’d entrust a somber movie about a husband’s bereavement and his obsession with finding his lost love? Apparently it did to Universal and the eight producers of Dragonfly, because they entrusted that $60 million budget to Tom Shadyac. Yes, he is a very commercially successful director (three of the four movies listed at the beginning of this paragraph grossed over $100 million, and while Ace Ventura didn’t light the box office afire, it was a raging success on home video), but that doesn’t equip him for such a film. Supernatural thrillers are/were the flavor of the month after The Sixth Sense, with Stir Of Echoes, What Lies Beneath, and The Others being some of the others in the sub-genre. Dragonfly‘s story takes a slightly different tack than most of those in that the spirit from beyond isn’t malevolent. Emily — or rather her ghost — isn’t trying to get revenge on Joe; she is trying to get Joe back to South America through cryptic signs so he can learn the truth about her final hours. (I have much more to say about that, but I’ll save my major beefs with the insipid plot and its conclusion for the Rebuttal Witnesses section.) There’s a good movie in that story, and in different hands it could have been, but Shadyac doesn’t have the skill to pull it out. Instead, he (and the screenwriters) rely on visual and storytelling clichés you’ve seen, and seen better, in every other supernatural thriller or horror-lite movie. Eerie lights around door frame? Check. Corpse that moves? Check. Strange noise upstairs that, when investigated, gives the oogie-boogie a chance to something sinister behind your back (even if, in this case, “something sinister” is taking a paperweight out of a sealed box and putting clothes in a closet)? Check. Kids who experience the supernatural when adults can’t? Check. Creepy talking parrot? Well, at least that’s somewhat original. Also, whoever introduced Shadyac to the spinning-around-the-table Steadicam shot should be pummeled to death with a 2×4. I’m looking at you, Steven Soderbergh. It’s used at least twice in the film, and never amounts to any sort of emotional connection. Tom, fancy camera moves are only window dressing unless they heighten the impact of a scene. Spinning a camera around bar table, especially when it’s not tracking the conversation, doesn’t count as impact. Just because Soderbergh used it to excellent effect in sex, lies and videotape doesn’t mean it will work here. Oh, and Tom? That computer-generated rainbow at the end? Didn’t fool anyone. It would’ve looked more realistic if a child had drawn it on the negative in crayon. You obviously added it with CG in an attempt to punch up the emotions. Didn’t work.
Oh, and before I move on, I have to say something about the supporting cast. I love character actors, the “That Guys” who are in more movies than you can count whom you may not recognize by name but you would definitely recognize their face. They’re usually believable in whatever movie they’re cast in, filling whatever shoes are necessary. There’s three great ones in Dragonfly: Ron Rifkin, Joe Morton, and Kathy Bates. All three are class acts; all have given great performances in the past (The Negotiator, Terminator 2, and Misery being their best, respectively). Here, they’re phoning it in. Perhaps they’re just conspiring so that they won’t upstage Kevin Costner, but I have never seen any of them be so bland and unconvincing in their portrayals, so noncommittal in their line deliveries. Rifkin plays a doctor friend of Joe’s who tries to talk him through his pain. I won’t necessarily fault him for the scenes’ deadwood feeling, because much like anyone in the Star Wars prequels, he has dreck for a script and is acting opposite nothing. Morton, as the hospital administrator, wears that description like it’s the character’s only defining characteristic, looking as if he just drank sour goat milk and telling Joe to take a vacation. Bates is supposed to be something of a mother figure, the kind lady who lives next door. Her scenes are hampered by the sort of exposition that feels as forced and out of place as clothes on Britney Spears.
You techheads will be glad to know the disc’s technical merits are meritorious indeed. It is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The only drawback I saw was a brief appearance of edge enhancement. Audio is available in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes. I viewed with the Dolby Digital track. I was not nearly as happy with the audio, though it was certainly serviceable for a drama. I noticed few uses of the surrounds or LFE. Prolific film composer John Debney’s score is relegated to the front channels, though the dialogue is nicely balanced with the effects and music.
On the extras front, you get a commentary by director Tom Shadyac, a typical Universal “Spotlight on Location” promo featurette, deleted scenes, a special interview about a near-death experience, the theatrical trailer, and more. Despite my poor feeling about Shadyac’s direction, I rather liked his commentary for one simple reason: he’s honest. Granted, he has a completely different opinion of his work, but he’s willing to admit that this was his first drama and that certain things don’t work. There’s few gaps, and he’s quite easy to listen to. The “Spotlight on Location” feature runs about 13 minutes, and is your usual mix of talking heads, film clips, and behind-the-scenes material. The deleted scenes are presented as a continuous reel, running about 12 minutes. Video quality is very poor, looking like a poorly digitized bootleg you’d download off the Internet (not that I’d know about such things). I can’t say there’s a single scene that would have improved the film. The near-death interview is billed as “Best-selling author Betty Eadie on her near death experience.” It’s about seven minutes long, and gives this lady’s blow-by-blow of what she describes as heaven accompanied by cheesy new age music and blatant intercut pictures (exit signs, pictures of the cosmos, et cetera). Whatever. The “and more” I previously listed are your usual other features, like production notes, cast and crew bios, and DVD-ROM web links.
Okay, you thought I was harsh before? Fasten your seatbelts!
Here’s what I mean about forced exposition. In the first scene with Kevin Costner and Kathy Bates, she says to him, “You’d think a professor of law could be more precise with her language.” Now, you’d think that if she was living next door to him for an indeterminate amount of time and was obviously quite friendly with him that he would know she was a professor of law and would say something like “I know what your job is, but thanks for reminding me!” What’s more egregious about this scene is that not only is it forced exposition, it’s needless — this little detail has not an iota of bearing on the rest of the film. Only a minute later, we hear an answering machine message from a bunch of drunken people telling Joe that he needs to come with them on a whitewater rafting trip. Joe helpfully tells his parrot that those were college chums. I’m sure the parrot was thinking, “I know those were your friends, but thanks for reminding me!” Oh, this also explains who the people were that we saw Joe have a drink with in a bar just a couple minutes before in the scene with the gratuitous Steadicam twirl.
In the first few minutes of the film, it’s established that Joe went to Venezuela (I finally remembered where it was) to look for Emily. He even tells the nebulously Hispanic (more on that in a second) soldier in charge of the rescue operation that “I’m not going anywhere until this is over!” Oh, if only that were true, because then we wouldn’t have been subjected to the rest of the film! Now, if I were a dead caring mother that wanted my husband to schlep to a foreign country to find our daughter, I wouldn’t be showing little kids in a pediatric oncology ward squiggly line map symbols so that my husband, perhaps weeks later, perhaps months later, perhaps never, would look at a whitewater rafting map, see the symbol, call a friend (hmm, didn’t this map have a legend?), and only then learn that the squiggly line map symbol was a waterfall so that he could look through pictures I sent him, find one of me next to a waterfall with a rainbow in the background, and only then realize that I was trying to tell him to come look by that waterfall. No, my message to my husband would look like the one Arnie left to himself in Total Recall — “Get your ass to Venezuela!”
The South American characters in the film all speak this mixture of English and Spanish that sounds something like “Por favor, go home!” I’ve never heard a multilingual person jump in and out of languages when I suppose they figured the listener (or the audience) would understand both languages. When they didn’t know what to say, perhaps, but not when they knew the listener would know that “please” and “por favor” were synonymous. Oh, and these government-protected natives, shut off from the rest of civilization, have pickup trucks and guns. It’s said that they had been cut off from the world since the landslide that killed Joe’s wife (about six months, if you believe Shadyac’s commentary), so how did they still have gasoline for their ’70s vintage gas-guzzling pickup? Oh, and the primitive native women wear beads to cover their shameful nakedness.
The rest of this paragraph is a spoiler. Leave now if you care. I was past the point of caring what happened when the ending rolled around, so maybe I would’ve seen it coming if I had been paying more attention. Remember that Emily was preggers? Well, she didn’t survive the landslide, but her baby did! Yep, these primitive natives were able to do an emergency C-section and save the child, and from appearances kept it in this sacred hut with her own key lighting until the brave white man with a photograph of the dead woman could come and reclaim the child. It’s at this point that the CG rainbow kicks in to remind us of the little kids’ visions from earlier that clued Joe in that there were rainbows nearby!
$60 million. This movie cost $60 million to make. There’s no special effects to speak of, other than the cloying rainbow. Most of the locations filling in for Venezuela are really in the United States. Heck, they shot on location in Los Angeles filling in for Chicago. What about this movie cost $60 million?
Universal is getting on the forced trailer bandwagon. Prior to the movie starting, we are treated to a 30-second Universal logo that doubles as a reminder that this is the 20th anniversary of E.T. I knew that from all your other marketing, Universal, but thanks for reminding me! If that wasn’t enough, we’re treated to a 90-second trailer for the DVD/VHS release of The Scorpion King, quite possibly the most hyped movie in moviedom. Universal, DVD viewers are a savvy bunch (well, except for those ones who shop at Wal-Mart and wonder why they’re losing so much of the durn picture to them black bar dealies) and we don’t like being forced to watch trailers prior to our movie experience. If you had included the Scorpion King trailer elsewhere on the disc so that we could watch it or ignore it at our discretion, it would have been considered an extra feature, not a nuisance.
Kevin Costner fans, if there are any after the one-two punch of Waterworld and The Postman, might want to give Dragonfly a rental. Film school students doing a compare and contrast with a better supernatural thriller might want to use it as their bad example. Everyone else, go back to ignoring it.