This was an interesting diversion. Ostensibly this movie is about a man coming to terms with the tragedy of his life, and in doing so coming to the aid of a fellow traveller in even greater need than himself. It reminds me a great deal of the Fisher King, and to a lesser extent Finding Neverland. It deals a great deal with perception of reality and the value of delusion. It is a lovely film, often heartfelt, funny at times, remarkably acted and engaging. For all that, it never quite hits the mark. I kept waiting for something else to happen, some magical aspect I was missing. In fact, I would have been quite impressed had suddenly the magic referred to so constantly was in fact real. You see much of the film deals with a schizophrenic, played wonderfully by Ian McKellan, who believes quite strongly in a land called Neverwas, seemingly based on the successful children's books written by Aaron Eckhart's father, in the movie.
What attracted me to this movie was the cast. I've always had a soft spot for Aaron Eckhart and his doppleganger Thomas Jane. They both have this great square jawed blonde soft spoken manliness that I keep waiting to see just dominate the screen. Instead, they both just kind of fill a particular niche in film, neither really dominating their films, just doing a pretty darn good job at being pretty darn good. Then we have Sir Ian McKellan. I don't usually refer to Englishmen with titles by them, but I make an exception for the man who brought Gandalf and Magneto to life. I have enjoyed his work since first really becoming aware of him in Apt Pupil and expected that I would enjoy it in this film as well. I was not wrong, and his performance in this movie is one of his best, although largely overlooked. Jessica Lange and Nick Nolte fill in, playing Eckhart's parents. Jessica Lange sometimes annoys me in that it seems like she has had three phases to her career. The first era she played the ingenue, often in distress. Then it seems like for a while she was always the slightly older woman, and usually in distress. Now she plays the crazy old woman, in emotional distress. Then we have the lovely Brittany Murphy, slim compared to the beginning of her career, but still lovely. This was made in 2005 before she really lost all the weight and eventually died. Finally the last significant supporting character is played by William Hurt. There are some other talented actors, though less notable, such as Vera Farmiga, Michael Moriarty, and Alan Cumming who does one of his least extravagant roles ever. Great cast. It would be hard to make a mess of such a talented group of people. Even Bill Bellamy, the comedian in a serious role does a good job. The director does not fail with his actors, yet somehow it doesn't quite make up for whatever is lacking in this film.
Neverwas has a simple set up, a child leaves his home, obviously distraught. He runs out of what could only be described as a manor home (the place has a bridge for a driveway) and past cops with dogs. He runs down an autumn leaf laden path to find what we have to assume is his father, dead, suicide by hanging. This cuts away to Aaron Eckhart waking in a cold sweat, our protagonist found his dead father and is still haunted by that decades later.
The title sequence features really lovely fantasy art, in the style of a kids fantasy, narrated by Ian McKellan telling us the story of Zachary Small, a boy who saved the kingdom of Neverwas with his bravery and goodness. I was struck by how pretty the art for this fictional work of fiction was, and thought to myself that I would love to see this book made, regardless of the quality of the movie. Ian McKellan's voice is perfect for this sequence, as Gandalf can tell a magical tale when it suits him. Only, it's pretty obvious that the narration isn't so much about the novel as it is about our protagonist.
Incidentally, the music is composed by the magnificent Phillip Glass, and while not his best work, still really nice and suits the movie perfectly. Here have a clip of his fantastic piano work.
Maybe the problem with the movie is that everything is so obvious. The trailer absolutely broadcasts the entire meat of the film, I would not recommend watching it if you plan on attempting to immerse yourself fully in the film. When the sudden, yet inevitable, betrayal occurs you new it was coming from the beginning, just as you know the betrayal is really just a means of pushing our hero onward, and will be redeemed. Ian McKellan may be crazy, but you know from his moments of serenity that there is a truth behind his madness.
Despite my reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and applaud the cast on a job well done. My only complaint is that it lacked some undefinable quality that would have made it great, instead it was merely a pretty decent movie that broadcast it's secrets too early and thought it was more clever than it really was.