With his once-blazing career in deep freeze (has it really been ten years since hits such as “Dances with Wolves,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “JFK,” and “The Bodyguard” put him at the top of Hollywood?) it would figure that Kevin Costner would attempt a thaw with a supernatural thriller. After all, Bruce Willis made his umpteenth career comeback with “The Sixth Sense”; Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer each had their biggest hit in years with “What Lies Beneath”; and Nicole Kidman finally proved her mettle on her own with “The Others.” While those films had capable stylists and craftsmen behind them (M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Zemeckis, and Alejandro Amenábar, respectively), Costner has turned to Tom Shadyac, he responsible for the first “Ace Ventura” film and, most recently and inexusably, “Patch Adams.” Is it then any wonder that “Dragonfly” fails at just about everything it sets out to do, least of all kickstart Costner’s flagging career?
Shadyac apparently believes that the same principles behind his comedic early efforts, “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Nutty Professor,” apply to straight drama: that is, to make everything broadly over-the-top. This approach, slathered on so thickly in the treaclefest known as “Patch Adams,” is very much in evidence in “Dragonfly.” Despite the ad campaign and the thriller veneer, this film is very much a syrupy melodrama in the “Patch” vein. Costner plays Joe Darrow, a doctor haunted by the memory of his also-doctor wife Emily (Susanna Thompson) some months after her death in a tragic bus accident in Venezuela. But it could actually be Emily herself doing the haunting, for strange occurrences begin to happen at their house and the hospital where they both work. Joe becomes convinced that Emily is trying to send him a message from the great beyond. Universal has gone to great pains to tell media not to reveal anything about the ending or other twists along the way, but suffice it to say the nature of the message is not exactly disturbing–though one can say it’s disturbingly saccharine.
Shadyac and credited writers David Seltzer, Brandon Camp, and Mike Thompson create exactly one creepy moment: a child who has flatlined suddenly, if very expectedly, comes back to life with a freaky bug-eyed expression. Shadyac works the usual ghost story motions–darkened hallways, mysterious noises, etc.–but any hoped-for jolts are telegraphed. Not that these would-be jolts are in heavy supply, for draining the scare potential is the fact that the ghost is a friendly one to say the least. Given how much is made about how Joe and Emily loved each other so, the audience knows that he’s never in any danger.
What Costner and everyone else is in constant danger of is spouting some awful dialogue. The exposition is especially clunky; take, for instance, this less-than-graceful line delivered by Joe’s neighbor (Kathy Bates) after she says something to him she shouldn’t have: “You’d think a professor of law would be a little more precise in her language.” As if we didn’t get the message loud and clear, in the next scene the Bates character actually says to Joe, “Remember, I’m a lawyer.”
At least Bates strikes the right balance of earnestness and humor in her performance; the same can’t be said for Costner. In keeping with Shadyac’s “more is more” manifesto, he overdoes Joe’s increasing hysteria. But leave it to Costner to overact and somehow be insufferably dour at the same time. It’s performances like these that make it so easy to forget that, when he wants to, Costner can indeed act and be an appealing star. One wonders, though, based on his recent work like “Dragonfly,” that Costner himself has forgotten how to hold the screen.