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Movie Review: Neverwas

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It rarely bodes well for a movie when the studio skips the theatres altogether in favor of a straight to DVD release. It’s even more perplexing when such a movie boasts a cast the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Ian McKellen, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, and William Hurt. With such a stellar ensemble, it stands to reason the project would garner at least attention, if not respect.

Neverwas, by writer and first-time director Joshua Michael Stern, valiantly attempts to be a meaningful, uplifting film. Unfortunately, what emerges instead is a movie desperately trying to find its identity. Eckhart plays Zach Riley, a supposedly brilliant Yale researcher who convinces the director of Mill Wood psychiatric hospital (Hurt) to hire him as a staff psychiatrist, a position for which he’s vastly overqualified. Unbeknownst to the Hurt character (since background checks apparently aren’t done at this hospital), Zach’s deceased father (Nolte), an acclaimed novelist best known for the children’s fantasy “Neverwas,” had been a patient there shortly before his suicide. Conveniently enough, Zach encounters a delusional schizophrenic named Cedric (McKellen) during a group session. Cedric insists that Zach is the long-lost savior of Neverwas, which Cedric insists is a very real place, an enchanted land of which he is king.

The problem with Neverwas is everything falls far too neatly into place, without ever engaging the viewer in the story. Zach’s love interest (Britanny Murphy) is conveniently introduced as a childhood friend who’s been enamored of “Neverwas” all these years. Jessica Lange, as Zach’s alcoholic mother, serves only as a bridge between his past and his current state. Sadly, both characters are drawn so broadly that they serve as little more than buoys to keep the plodding story afloat. Only Nolte, seen only in gauzy black and white flashbacks, lends credibility to the premise as the tortured, drug-addled writer of “Neverwas.”

Other movies have blurred the lines between fantasy and reality much more deftly — The Fisher King and Finding Neverland come to mind. But where those films coupled a sense of wonder with an empathy for the mentally ill, Neverwas skirts those facets in favor of sugar-coated melodrama. As a consequence, its potential metaphors are discarded, leaving only a shell of a story rife with obvious clichés. What we’re left with is a film that has the aura of a made for Lifetime TV movie. Even its climax is contrived so as to provide a happy, if ill-advised ending.

Neverwas, with its tagline of “Every fairy tale needs its hero,” held the promise of allegory, and indeed, it could have been. Had Stern focused his story rather than let it slip into pandering, and had the actors involved not called in their performances, and had they perhaps not gone with light and airy cinematography against a droning Philip Glass soundtrack, it might have been a movie that spoke to the human condition. The opposite happened, though, leaving Neverwas as a film more about might have beens than it ever intended.

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About Ray Ellis