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Costner feels presence of fallen wife in 'Dragonfly'

Friday, February 22, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Dragonfly" is the first Kevin Costner movie to run less than two hours since "Field of Dreams" in 1989. Still, it lumbers along in its own way, laboriously hacking a path through the jungle of spiritual mysticism. While it looks like we've been here before, the movie winds up taking some less obvious (and therefore more intriguing) turns.


RATING: PG-13 for thematic material and mild sensuality.

PLAYERS: Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates, Joe Morton, Susanna Thompson.

DIRECTOR: Tom Shadyac.

WEB SITE: www.dragonfly



Costner plays Joe Darrow, the head of emergency services at a Chicago hospital. His wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), a pediatric oncologist, has gone on a mercy mission to Venezuela despite his misgivings. The movie opens in what looks like the middle of a scene. Hostilities have broken out near Emily's location and she flees with her patients. Their bus skids off a rain-slicked highway into a raging river. Everyone is presumed dead.

Joe does not handle it well. He is almost brutally callous toward an emergency-room patient who has attempted suicide, saying he'll only treat people who want to live. But he's harsh even with them. He bluntly states his rejection of the concept of an afterlife.

He tries to bury himself in work while his boss (Joe Morton), colleagues, family and neighbor Miriam (Kathy Bates) know he's refusing to let himself grieve. They tell him to take time off, get away and start moving on. He tells them where to get off.

But then Emily's young cancer patients start talking to him in unusual circumstances. One knows his name even though he has never met either Joe or Emily. Another calls to him while being rushed to the emergency room because his heart has stopped. Both start compulsively drawing the same symbol, which looks like a squiggly cross. Both say they have a message for him from Emily, and make it sound urgent.

By the time the poltergeists start disturbing Joe's sleep at home, we're not sure if we're watching "The Sixth Sense" from the kid's point of view or "What Dreams May Come" focusing not on the dead man in heaven (like Emily, a saintly doctor) but on the wife mourning his death.

You may think you know what's going to happen and particularly what that squiggly symbol represents, and you may chafe at how long it takes Joe to figure things out. But screenwriters David Seltzer, Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson may surprise you. And even while they are manipulating events, they also take care to do some subtle foreshadowing, though you will probably see it only in retrospect.

The ending has a kind of fresh redemption in it that helps shake off the heaviness of the pace of Costner's performance. His Joe carries the burden of his confusion over what is happening to him -- at one point, even he begins to think he's losing his marbles.

But whatever emotional pain he feels gets wrapped up in his thick skin and his obsession with getting to the bottom of what may be nothing more than delusion, in which case he would come off as more pitiable than sympathetic.

Director Tom Shadyac utilizes a moving camera to symbolize Joe's search for answers -- it is always closing in on him or the young patients, or else swirling around him in wide arcs.

But Shadyac's track record is another source of misgivings. He's never made a movie like this. Shadyac is best known for his wild and crazy comedies -- the first "Ace Ventura" film, Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor," Jim Carrey's "Liar Liar."

He also directed the medical comedy-drama "Patch Adams," in which Robin Williams plays a maverick doctor who believes in the healing power of laughter with such obnoxious self-righteous fervor that you want to smack him across the face with a clown's oversized shoe.

That movie also featured pediatric cancer patients, and it turns out that Shadyac's father, Richard, is national executive director of St. Jude's Children's Hospital.

So maybe it's a little personal for Tom Shadyac, which may be why the film's earnestness doesn't feel as phony as it often does when Hollywood takes on spirituality.

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