Los Angeles Times

Movie review, 'Dragonfly'

Kevin Costner is an actor who likes to play obsessed characters, people who see things the rest of the world misses - like the maverick soldier in "Dances With Wolves" or conspiracy theorist Jim Garrison in "JFK" - and in "Dragonfly" he has a doozy.

In this tender-hearted but loony romantic ghost story about a love from beyond the grave, Costner plays Joe Darrow, a Chicago emergency room head doctor whose physician wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), is seemingly killed in a Venezuelan avalanche. He then becomes fixated on the notion that she's trying to communicate with him from the afterlife.

But is she? Is Emily - lost on a mission of mercy among poor native tribes - really trying to reach Joe by channeling messages through the cancer-patient kids in her pediatric oncology ward? Is she really appearing in visions to both her husband and her eccentric bald parrot? Or is Joe simply the overworked, emotionally shattered widower many of his friends, colleagues and employers believe he is?

Most ghost stories try to terrify us with the notion that the dead won't leave us alone; this one tries to reassure us by suggesting that dead loved ones never really leave us. It's another in the recent line of "New Age" ghost movies exemplified by "The Sixth Sense" (from Spyglass, the same production company that produced "Dragonfly"): a supernatural thriller that plays with notions of spirituality and eternal life.

"Dragonfly," for all its eerie set pieces, tries to go warm and fuzzy on us instead of cold and spooky. But it's also a sappy, often absurd disappointment, another would-be inspirational romance that, like Costner's overwrought "Message in a Bottle," is impossible to swallow.

Joe is a quick-tempered but gentle guy who runs Emergency Services at the mythical Chicago Memorial Hospital. Emily is Joe's "perfect partner," sexy and idealistic, with a distinctive dragonfly birthmark that inspires both the movie's title and its numerous dragonfly appearances, references and motifs. (At one point, I began to get seriously scared Emily would actually come back as a huge dragonfly.)

Bereaved and inconsolable, constantly flashing back to reveries of Emily in happier days, Joe defies his uptight boss Campbell (Joe Morton), ignores his solicitous neighbor Mrs. Belmont (Kathy Bates), ditches his well-meaning friends and colleagues (Ron Rifkin and others) and buries himself in 20-hour marathon shifts at the hospital. Suddenly he begins hearing about Emily through and from patients who have undergone near-death experiences, like smiling little cancer patient and frequent flat-liner Jeffrey (Robert Bailey Jr.). They all say she has a message for Joe, probably involving rainbows, but no one has the foggiest idea what it is. As Joe stares in rapt befuddlement, visions of the beauteous Emily appear to him in the night. She also seemingly fiddles with her favorite dragonfly paperweight on their night table, leaves mysterious wavy cross signs everywhere and inspires her hospital kids to keep painting those same crosses over and over. She even speaks to him though a flabby, bearded corpse waiting on a table for an organ transplant harvest.

Each time Emily gets through to him, Costner loyally reconfigures his face into that look of incredibly perplexed, hurt longing. This is a sober, sincere performance, and Costner never breaks character even in the most wildly unlikely moments - as when the script has him diving off a cliff in frantic pursuit of Emily - though sometimes, you wish he would.

This material may sound at least partly comic, but the handling is dead serious, even though the director is Tom Shadyac, who made his reputation and fortune with the smash-hit gross-out comedies "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," with Jim Carrey, and "The Nutty Professor," with Eddie Murphy. Those two, and to a lesser extent, Shadyac and Carrey's "Liar, Liar," were grossly humorous movies, and Shadyac's last film, also with a medical background, was the grossly sentimental, somewhat funny Robin Williams vehicle, "Patch Adams."

Now, in "Dragonfly," Shadyac has mostly jettisoned humor, even, I'm sad to say, of the unintentional kind. (The movie is goofy, but not funny-bad.) What's left is just gross sentimentality.

Maybe that's Shadyac's commercial secret as a director: He never tries to sneak anything past an audience, always keeps pounding away at us. But in the entire span of "Dragonfly" - among a cast that includes Oscar-winners Costner, the always-reliable Bates and Linda Hunt (as a prescient nun) - there was only one performance that gave me the honest, effortless pleasure of Jim Carrey as Ace or Murphy as the Nutty Prof. That was Jacob Vargas (Benicio Del Toro's partner in "Traffic") as the seedy pilot who eventually flies Joe to Venezuela.

Except for "Thirteen Days," where his only real problem was his character?s Boston accent, Kevin Costner has had such bad luck with his recent run of movies you almost wish he could pull this one off to break the spell. The ludicrous two-handkerchief weepie "Message in a Bottle," the overblown baseball saga "For Love of the Game" and the howlingly creepy and knuckle-headed Elvis impersonator heist thriller "3,000 Miles to Graceland" - these are movies that you?d think an actor would dive off a cliff to avoid. Yet Costner?s very bravery and individuality as an actor and filmmaker - the qualities that enabled him to make "Dances With Wolves," "Bull Durham" or "JFK" - seem to work against him in projects like "Dragonfly."

Rather than flinching at the idea of playing a doctor who works 20-hour shifts and hears his wife speaking to him from a chubby corpse, Costner charges right in, cliches blazing. He should be more reticent.

"Dragonfly" is a preposterous movie, even though you can tell that everyone, including the often estimable co-screenwriter David Seltzer ("Punchline"), probably had their hearts on their sleeve when they made it. But if this is a picture made by people who really want us to believe that our loved ones may still try to reach us from beyond the grave, then why have they created characters who were never really alive in the first place?

2 stars

Directed by Tom Shadyac; written by David Seltzer, Brandon Camp, Mike Thompson; photographed by Dean Semler; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designed by Linda DeScenna; music by John Debney; produced by Mark Johnson, Shadyac, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber. A Universal Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment release; opens Friday, Feb. 22. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG-13 (thematic material and mild sensuality).
Dr. Joe Darrow--Kevin Costner
Emily Darrow--Susanna Thompson
Mrs. Belmont--Kathy Bates
Hugh Campbell--Joe Morton
Dr. Charlie Dickinson--Ron Rifkin Sister Madeleine--Linda Hunt

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.

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