Movie review, 'Dreamcatcher'

EntertainmentMoviesLawrence KasdanGenresWilliam GoldmanDonnie Wahlberg

"Dreamcatcher" is the latest movie from novelist Stephen King, monarch of a fabulously popular world of everyday horrors, and it's also one of King's favorites among the films adapted from his work. But though it's a wild ride, it's also somewhat patchy and chaotic. "Dreamcatcher" - which has been given the "A" treatment, directed and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan - is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes confusing and stomach-turning film about five boyhood pals and how they become embroiled in an invasion from outer space.

The quintet includes psychiatrist Henry Devlin (Thomas Jane), college history professor Jonesy (Damian Lewis), carpenter Joe "Beaver" Clarendon (Jason Lee) and car salesman Pete (Timothy Olyphant) - four buddies whose longtime bonds dissolve social and professional barriers. They all developed wild talents, like precognition or telepathy, after coming to the rescue of their fifth friend, Douglas or "Duddits" (Donnie Wahlberg). Now leukemia-stricken, Duddits even back then was a weak outsider taunted by school bullies. His four buddies, now adults and somewhat bedeviled by their talents, have gathered in the woods for their yearly guys' outing: a retreat of cards, boozing, reminiscing and cutting loose, which is interrupted by the space invasion.

The opening scenes of "Dreamcatcher," among my favorite in the film, deftly establish this group's camaraderie and off-color badinage. King loves four-letter Anglo-Saxon cusswords as much as any American novelist since Henry Miller, and many such words adorn the group's favorite expressions, including the main nickname for the space invaders. That not-so-casual profanity is part of why King is good with guy groups, as are Kasdan and Goldman. There's a breeziness about the early scenes - mostly due to Lee's foul-mouthed jokester, The Beav - that's enjoyably irreverent and light. But as soon as the group connects with a weary, lost woodsman named McCarthy, the horror starts, and the story takes a weird, almost nauseating turn.

The blotchy-faced McCarthy stumbles out of the woods in the throes of some bizarre disease. As he burbles, belches and lets out bursts of gas, we can sense something dire - and flatulent - approaching. It is. In the movie's "money" scene, McCarthy literally explodes in the cabin toilet, and the creatures are let loose on the movie. If you thought M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" was too chaste, "Dreamcatcher" is the antidote. We won't describe what happens next, except to remark that it makes the toilet scene from "There's Something About Mary" look like "Little Mary Sunshine."

Soon, some of the quartet are dead; Jonesy has been inhabited by a sadistic, effeminate British bad guy named Mr. Gray (inspired by "Rocky Horror's" Charles Gray?); and Henry is trying to meet up with Duddits to try to save the world - or at least Maine. Making things even more difficult are a secret service anti-UFO team led by the gung-ho Col. Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and his troubleshooter Underhill. Curtis has clearly gone psycho, which means that Henry and Duddits are humanity's only hope.

King, like all major popular writers, has the gift of creating self-contained fictional worlds, and of reworking genres like horror so they seem fresh. Though in many ways it's a traditional monsters-from-outer-space movie, it's a typical King story, set in King territory - the snowy Maine woods.

It's a celebration of boyhood camaraderie and an intimate exploration of adult nightmares.

If it worked better, you could unblushingly call it the "GoodFellas" of alien invasion movies. The moviemakers keep jumping backward and forward, showing us the characters as boys and young men and contrasting the two. They also reprise big scare moments from other extraterrestrial monster epics they like: the shocks from "Alien" or the moody suspense of John Carpenter's "The Thing." But despite King's approval, "Dreamcatcher" loses its grip, gets too scattered. It's the kind of story that probably would have worked better as a four-hour miniseries.

It's a compacted movie. Most of the characters and events from the book are there, but they seem squeezed in. The immensely complex story, boiled down faithfully by Kasdan and co-writer William Goldman from King's hefty 800-plus pages, covers enormous territory, which may be partly why things begin to seem hurried. Yet throughout, there a boyish streak of both callousness and barroom sentimentality - qualities you also sense in Goldman's other work.

The writing is fairly good and so is the acting. Lee and Olyphant are best of the bunch; Freeman and Sizemore, puzzlingly, are disappointments. John Seale's three-camera cinematography and visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier's industrial-lights-and-magic effects are better than good, but "Dreamcatcher" never gets as intimate and funny as it does in its first scenes.

Since the mid-'80s, King has fared better on screen with his non-horror stories, including "Stand By Me," "Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile." "Dreamcatcher" doesn't break that trend, though it's better than many of the straight horror movies culled from his books. The shocks begin to seem like an intrusion; as horrifying and nauseating as the aliens are, the movie might be better without them.

Most novels can't be encapsulated well enough in a conventional two-hour movie format, and "Dreamcatcher" may be one of them - a miniseries gone wrong. Yet, in a way, what I like best about it is the richness of the story, its overpacked quality. King almost always injects some humanity and humor into his genre stories, and the best of "Dreamcatcher" suggests that too; the worst probably should have been flushed down that toilet. But is there an uncut three- or four-hour "Dreamcatcher" around? One that doesn't rush the pace or goose the monsters? Just asking.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Dreamcatcher"
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan; written by William Goldman, Kasdan, based on the novel by Stephen King; photographed by John Seale; edited by Carol Littleton, Raul Davalos; production designed by Jon Hutman; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Kasdan, Charles Okun. A Warner Brothers release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation; opens Friday, March 21. Running time: 2:11. MPAA rating: R (violence, language).
Col. Abraham Curtis - Morgan Freeman
Dr. Henry Devlin - Thomas Jane
Joe "Beaver" Clarendon - Jason Lee
Jonesy - Damian Lewis
Pete - Timothy Olyphant
Owen Underhill - Tom Sizemore Duddits - Donnie Wahlberg

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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