Costner lays on grief factor too thick

February 22, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Kevin Costner furrows his brow a lot in Dragonfly. His lower lip quivers tremulously. He sobs; he looks shaky; he's grief-stricken within an inch of his life. In short, he emotes.

If 105 minutes of this is your idea of a good time, then be sure to catch Dragonfly. But if you're bothered by shameless emotional pandering, burdensome pacing or strained dialogue, then see what else is playing at the multiplex. And while you're at it, say a silent prayer that Costner realizes plucking away at the audience's heartstrings just isn't his forte. Costner is never better than when he's allowed to smirk a bit, and that's one expression absent from this film.

Playing a doctor wracked with grief by the death of his wife in a South American bus accident, Costner starts off with our sympathy; who wouldn't side with a guy who's just lost the woman he loves? But Costner plasters his grief onto his face and rarely allows anything resembling a light emotional moment to mar that doleful countenance. Pretty soon, we stop feeling sorry for him and start wishing he'd lighten up just a tad. Grief is one thing, but determined unhappiness is another.

Joe Darrow (Costner) certainly loved his wife, Emily, of that we are assured repeatedly. In one example of the movie's leaden dialogue, a friend hoists a mug of beer while lamenting how Emily was the heart of their relationship, Joe the brain. Of course, Emily was a doctor, too, so it doesn't sound like she came up short in the brains department, either, but I suppose that misses the point.

At any rate, Emily is dispatched pretty early in the film; while working with the Red Cross in a remote South American village, she's killed when the school bus she's riding in slides off a mud-slicked road.

Joe, grieving over her death and guilt-ridden over the fact that he wasn't there alongside her, throws himself into his work as a way of dealing with his loss. But he's too preoccupied to be of much good around the hospital. And then there's the matter of the kids in the cancer ward, who, as they lie dying, keep telling Joe how his wife is appearing to them, urging them to tell him ... something.

There are other signs: This dragonfly paperweight he gave her keeps falling off the nightstand; a real dragonfly (her favorite insect) keeps hovering outside his window; her pet parrot apparently sees her, then almost dies; and this squiggly cross keeps turning up on papers all over the place.

What does it all mean? Joe wonders. Is Emily still alive? Or is she dead and trying to communicate with him from the other side?

All this leads toward a conclusion that's at least something of a surprise, a clever twist that could have redeemed what came before. If only what came before wasn't so painstakingly painful.

Several fine actors are wasted along the way. Kathy Bates fares best, bringing vitality to the role of Joe's neighbor, a lawyer who thinks he's gone bonkers but is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Linda Hunt, as a nun who apparently has this whole afterlife thing figured out (and patiently explains it both to Joe and to us), treads dangerously close to eye-rolling territory. And Joe Morton, as the heartless hospital CEO who keeps insisting that Joe take some time off, is nothing more than a caricature who gets to give the same speech three or four times.

Director Tom Shadyac continues in much the same vein he established with 1998's Patch Adams, and saying this film is slightly less mawkish than that shameless tearfest isn't exactly praise. This also marks the second straight film in which he's used cancer-stricken children to induce tears in his audience. That's exploitation, not artistry, and he ought to be ashamed.

Dragonfly

Starring Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates

Directed by Tom Shadyac

Rated PG-13 (thematic material, mild sensuality)

Released by Universal

Running time 105 minutes

Sun score *1/2

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