You could hardly go wrong with the cast: Aaron Eckhart, Ian McKellen, Brittany Murphy, William Hurt, Alan Cumming, Jessica Lange, Nick Nolte, Vera Farmiga, Michael Moriarity; nor with the studio, Miramax. So why haven't most people even heard of this film? It could be that after its Toronto Film Festival appearance in 2005, Miramax shelved the picture until this year and then released it to DVD. That is usually an indication that despite the big names, it isn't a very good movie.
True. Despite the big-name cast, it's not a very good movie. Which may explain why "Neverwas" was never in your neighborhood theater.
Written and directed by first-time director Joshua Michael Stern, who had previously written the screenplays for "Skeletons" and "Amityville Dollhouse" among other things, "Neverwas" borrows heavily on "Finding Neverland," which came out the year before, and "The Chronicles of Narnia," which was in production at the same time. "Neverwas" tries to combine a true-life drama with some psychological fantasy but comes a cropper, largely because it shows so little originality or imagination.
The aforementioned films appealed to young and old alike, but Stern clearly aimed "Neverwas" specifically at adults, many of whom will be immune to its charms. I found the film rather slow, predictable, and humdrum. It was only the final twenty minutes that interested me, and even then the climax falls like a dull thud. Very disappointing.
Things begin with a child witnessing his father's suicide, which doesn't help set a very pleasant tone for the picture. Turns out, it's a recurring nightmare that psychiatrist Zach Riley (Eckhart) has of his father's death (he hanged himself), and it has kept him awake nights for years. In order to help himself with his own devils and find himself, so to speak, Zach takes a journey of discovery, returning to rural, upper-state New York to work as a therapist at the Millwood Psychiatric Clinic, where his father had once been a patient. Doctors had diagnosed the father as suffering from manic-depression, agoraphobia (fear of crowds), and suicidal tendencies.
Now, here's the plot gimmick, and I have to admit it's a good one. Zach's father, T.L. Pierson (Nolte), during his lucid moments was a novelist, whose best-selling fantasy adventure, "Neverwas," features a young boy as its main character, a boy named Zachary Small, whom the father patterned after his own son, Zach. Once Zach is working at Millwood, he meets a patient there, an old coot named Gabriel Finch (McKellen), who claims to have been a good friend of his father and, moreover, claims that the father didn't just make up the book, but that it all really happened! Gabriel insists that he is the rightful king of Neverwas, that his kingdom lies in a vast forest just over a nearby mountain, that evil monsters are about to take it over, and that he's been waiting all these many years for Zach's return to help him reclaim his land. Doctors have diagnosed Gabriel as delusional, and he has been in and out of mental hospitals for the past forty years. But is he delusional? Was "Neverwas" really just a fantasy? Or could it be that Neverwas does exist, just over the mountain?
As I say, this is an intriguing premise, one that promises the possibilities of a "Narnia" or a "Bridge to Terabithia." The trouble is that writer-director Stern keeps the movie firmly anchored in the here and now, filling his story with clichéd incidents and dull, plodding characters.
For instance, on Zach's first day at Millwood he has dinner in town, and who does he run into but a childhood friend, Maggie (Murphy), who just happens to be beautiful and single. Their relationship soon blooms but to no advantage to the story line. She neither helps nor hinders his progress in dealing with the traumatic experiences of his youth. Also, the fact that in reality Ms. Murphy is about eleven years younger than Eckhart, and looks it, doesn't help us much to accept that they could have been childhood friends.
Then there is Jessica Lange as Zach's harpy mother, clinging, possessive, demanding. We have to wonder if she didn't have something to do with driving Zach's father to hang himself, yet in flashbacks we see her comforting her husband, so how does the film want us to interpret these events? Ms. Lange appears only to be doing a Faye Dunaway impersonation from "Mommie Dearest."
Stern throws the rest of his high-profile cast around like cameos. William Hurt plays the head of Millwood, Dr. Peter Reed, but he has practically nothing to do with the story, and the actor's presence, always so serious, only lends a certain degree of gravitas to the proceedings. Michael Moriarity, Vera Farmiga, and Alan Cumming play patients at the hospital, but their combined screen time adds up to maybe two minutes. We see Nick Nolte only in Zach's dreams, where he is simply a grim and unhappy face. Seems rather a waste to use name actors and then not have them actually do anything.
The movie attempts to be quirky and sentimental as well as ponderously heavy, and noted minimalist composer Philip Glass provides the musical accompaniment. But like the plot of the movie itself, the soundtrack music is just as syrupy and just as repetitious, quickly becoming redundant.
"Neverwas" moves at a snail's pace as it opens up Zach's past. The characters, Zach especially, are humdrum and ordinary, in spite of the actors giving it their all and in spite of the script's insistence that Zach himself is anything but ordinary. The only person in the movie who shows any flair is Ian McKellen as the goofy Gabriel, but even his appropriately over-the-top performance isn't enough to save the film from boredom.
I dunno. It looks writer-director Stern was trying to create something uplifting and inspirational by fusing the stories of C.S. Lewis with Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and failed. The plot of "Neverwas" is neither good fantasy nor good psychology. Nor is "Neverwas" good filmmaking by relying so much on the commonplace. When it was over, I had no idea what it was supposed to mean, what it was supposed to symbolize, what we were supposed to have learned about Zach's father, or what Zach was supposed to have learned about himself. The movie is merely a premise in search of a plot, characters, and themes.
If you love widescreen, you will be pleased to know that the disc preserves most of the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, its dimensions measuring a good 2.18:1 across my screen, given some overscanning. However, the filmmaker himself compromises the video quality by his decision to photograph almost everything in shades of green and yellow, apparently to give the movie a more fairy-tale appearance. Bright, flashy backlighting in every other scene, combined with an overall dark tone, doesn't exactly enhance the definition, either, which remains only average throughout the movie.
The sound engineers render the audio via Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction, which is fine for front-channel stereo and a few rear-channel forest sounds, rain, and thunder. Mostly, the sound has only to reproduce dialogue and music, though, in which capacity it does a good job. Not much in the way of dynamics, impact, frequency range, or transparency to talk about, however.
Not much to talk about in the extras department as well. Buena Vista provide twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at three other of their titles; English as the only spoken language; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
It appears that everybody involved with this project took it very seriously. There is a tone of earnestness about the film that shows in every scene and in every actor's face. It's just that there is not much here, not much to be serious or earnest about. "Neverwas" attempts to communicate a heavy psychological tone and a grandiose message, but for the life of me I could not figure out what writer-director Stern intended this tone or message to be. Follow your dream, no matter where that dream may lead you? Look to your past for the keys to your present? Stand up and be counted? Help others and you help yourself? I could make up any number of possible messages for the movie, but what it comes down to is a heavy-handed, self-reverential film trying to be more than it is.