The sentimental drama Neverwas is an independent film festival flick with a big picture cast and a polished artsy feel, evoking the very fairy tale imagery on which the story is centered. Unfortunately, despite the cast and stylish look, the film misses its high set mark.
Psychiatrist Zach Riley, played by Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking), leaves an academic career to work at an institution where his father (Nick Nolte), a novelist of a renowned children’s book called Neverwas, lived during different periods of his life while suffering from manic depression. At the hospital, Zach encounters a schizophrenic named Gabriel (Ian McKellen), who believes he is a real character from Neverwas and that the story is real. Desiring to understand both the book and the man, Zach becomes obsessed with finding out more about how his father lived out his final years. With the help of this delusional patient and a childhood friend’s (Brittany Murphy) obsession with the fairy tale, Zach discovers the story’s secrets and his own place in the fantasy world created by his father. As he digs deeper and becomes closer to Gabriel, it causes him to reevaluate his own childhood and wonder, what if Neverwas really exists?
William Hurt stars as the hospital’s head doctor but, unfortunately, is not seen enough. Jessica Lange plays Zach’s widowed mother. Broadway star Alan Cumming also plays one of the inmates at the institution and delivers a great faceted character through his performance.
In the many flashbacks we see Nick Nolte playing a pill-popping alcoholic, and it may be that the character wasn’t too far of a stretch for the bad boy actor, especially since he delivers a sympathetic and compelling performance. Ironically, he looks better as the haggard, unstable character than he has a in a long time. Perhaps he’s merely playing himself as viewed by various paparazzi shots in the tabloids over the last few years. Jessica Lange, meanwhile, plays Nolte’s wife, a former aspiring actress turned alcoholic, living in a mansion, who is a little mad herself. However, her performance comes off as more of a caricature since her demons and afflictions are not fully explained at any point. Nevertheless, she manages to steal the scenes she is in just by being herself.
Ian McKellen, on the other hand, is perfect for this role given his Lord of the Rings‘ Gandalf fame, which helps cement the idea of how powerful children’s books can be to readers and the franchise that it can become. The passion shown by Gabriel for the fantasyland and the book’s fans makes me wish I actually had read Neverwas.
The love story between Murphy and Eckhart was a bit too contrived for my liking. Eckhart seemed a little too eager and awestruck in his performance in the beginning, which negates his character’s age and doctoral profession. However, his performance ends up being very endearing as well.
The film’s narrative and dreamlike fantasy shots and flashbacks help make the story even more majestic — more like the fable featured within the story. The jumping back and forth narrative and crouched low shots can be a bit dizzying at times, but also helps to set the fantasy mood. I was very impressed with the creative and unique style featured in this film; it often helped make up for the weaker plot moments and scenes that seemed to drag.
Overall, it’s Harry Potter meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And although it’s not the most fast paced film, it’s very well done and stylish for a first time director. It’s especially perfect for a rental or when you feel the urge to see an avant-garde film.
An intriguing, stylish, and magical flick.
Slow beginning, dull at times with plot holes in the screenplay, and a too tidy of an ending.
On the Side:
Ian McKellen’s character was originally named Virgil until he told the director that no British male is really named Virgil; the character was changed to Gabriel. Also the director and writer, Joshua Michael Stern, did many of the child book artwork featured in the film.
Final Grade: C+
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Writing Credits: Joshua Michael Stern
Release Date: September 9, 2005 [Toronto Film Festival]
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic issues.
Run Time: 108 min.
By Tara Settembre, Staff Writer for Film School Rejects