Sunday, September 11, 2005

TIFF 2005: "NEVERWAS" (Review)

(Special Presentations) USA, 108 minutes
Written & directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Brittany Murphy, Ian McKellen, Jessica Lange, William Hurt

An exploration of the relevance of fairy tales in the adult world, of the perils of fame on a scale of J.K. Rowling, of what it must be like to grow up a real-life Christopher Robin--any of these would make for compelling drama with fantastical undercurrents ideal for a director like Terry Gilliam, whose "The Fisher King" successfully navigated madness vs. fantasy with tragedy and whimsy and nary a false note. Regrettably, "Neverwas" is nothing but another hackneyed, "feel-good" fable about those how cute insane people can teach us all a valuable lesson, and life would be better if we were half off our collective rockers.

Yale grad Zach Riley (Eckhart) has spent much of his life avoiding association with the literary legacy of his famous, and eccentric, father T.L. Pierson (Nolte), who wrote the classic children's novel "Neverwas". The blockbuster success of the book wreaked havoc on its author's reclusive lifestyle and lead to his eventual mental breakdown, which drove Zach to achieve success as a psychiatrist under a different name. In an effort to understand something of his famous father's last days, Zach takes a job at the very institution to which he was committed.

Amongst the colourful ensemble of patients and specialists he meets Gabriel (McKellen), a delusional senior with a flair for the theatrical who not only believes the world of "Neverwas" to be real, but that he is actually its ruler. Gabriel maintains that Pierson appropriated his accounts of his homeland for the novel and that Zach's return is a "sign". The old man's ominous pronouncements trigger Zach into revisiting the book. An encounter with his childhood friend Maggie (Murphy), a journalist on assignment and a lifelong fan of "Neverwas", adds further resonance to Zach's reluctant suspicion that his father's fanciful notions might have been based on fact and that Gabriel should be freed to resume his reign.

For a tale that champions the importance of reading, "Neverwas" plods along under tin-eared dialogue, random motivations, and the worst deus ex machina rug pull involving not the calvary to the rescue, not Superman spinning the earth back-- let's just say it involves a lawyer, an eviction notice, and the ability to get a cell phone signal deep in the Vancouver woods.

The "Neverwas" concept is nicely detailed--the book's interior art, Maggie's collection of vintage memorabilia, and Pierson's 70s-era archival interviews are more convincing than the Syd Field-patented plot machinations--it's 'K-Pax" meets "Griffin And Sabine".

The performances are as scattershot as the plotting: Eckhart makes for a feeble and reactive hero, Murphy turns on the perk into overdrive, Lange looks puffy and swills booze with a bad Southern accent, and Nolte growls and grumbles like Salinger on downers. Curiously, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, and Cynthia Stevenson flinch and babble "Shine"-style in thankless, and rather baffling, cameos that contribute nothing to the narrative.
It's up to Sir Ian McKellen to carry the film, and he really lets 'er rip for the people in the back row. His histrionics are nearly drowned out by the wall-to-wall score by Philip Glass, who pounds the keyboards more steadily than that hophead in "Reefer Madness".

Stern has a background in direct-to-video schlock, with collaborations with David DeCoteau and "Amityville: Dollhouse" and the Greg Evigan "Alien" ripoff "Survivor" on his C.V. How this rather dubious filmography connected him to such Oscar-darlings as McKellen, Lang, and Nolte is probably a fairy tale more engrossing and affirming than the one presented here.

Robert J. Lewis