Director Tom Shadyac is obsessed with cancer kids. He fetishizes their huge, red-rimmed eyes and pasty, transparent skin stretched tight over bald little heads. It’s vaguely disgusting, but he does it anyway. Sometimes it’s in an attempt to wrest sympathy from us that his work cannot earn in other ways, as in his overbearingly manipulative Patch Adams. In Dragonfly, his unintentionally hilarious, over-the-top rip-off of The Sixth Sense, he’s trying to convince us that the terminally ill have special powers we oblivious healthy types cannot imagine. Surely, there must be some reason why adorable children get terrible diseases, right?
Don’t cry—of course there is. It’s so other perfect, noble, saintly people who die prematurely may communicate through them to the loved ones they’ve left behind. Pediatric oncologist Emily Darrow (Susanna Thompson) is “tragically killed,” one imagines the newspaper obituary reading, while serving as a Red Cross volunteer in Venezuela, where she was treating sick children, refraining from eating meat (she was a vegetarian), and generally being a “credit to the human race.” Shadyac’s committee of screenwriters actually felt it was necessary to come right out and state this, lest we miss the point that she Did Not Deserve to Die.
Naturally, her husband Joe isn’t dealing with her death well. He is Kevin Costner, after all, who did this same mopey, pining, stricken-with-unarticulated-grief thing in Message in a Bottle. So when he starts to become convinced that Emily’s spirit is floating around their house and speaking to him through the comas and near-death experiences of her former kid-cancer patients, is he going crazy? Or are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of this cynical rationalist?
Need you even ask? This is a Hollywood film—and worse yet, it’s a Tom Shadyac film, in which everything is up on the surface and exactly what it seems to be. For a story that purports to be about one of the great mysteries of human life—what, if anything, happens when we die?—there’s little that’s mysterious about it. Oh, there are puzzles for Joe to unravel, such as the meaning of the wavy cross-like figure all the cancer kids draw after they commune with Emily’s spirit, but these are just ways to pad out the film’s running time. Rational explanations for the “spooky” doings put forth by several characters are presented so halfheartedly that they don’t even need to be dismissed. The film assumes its audience shares its own conjecture—namely, that there does indeed exist some sort of generic, nondenominational, “As Seen on TV!” afterlife.
So it skips right over the development of any sort of suspense, questioning, or even the mere discovery of “something beyond” that makes the best of these kinds of supernatural stories work. It deliberately avoids building a sense of creepy watchfulness that’s practically elemental to tales of departed spirits, instead aiming for—and achieving—a mushy feeling of comfortable wishful thinking. It’s exactly like someone who has never experienced real grief shoveling what he believes are consoling platitudes at those who genuinely mourn. It’s despicable in the same way that TV psychic John Edward is, preying on anguish and plastering it over with a Band-Aid.
Yet that utter thoughtlessness is what makes the terrible Dragonfly so terribly, awfully funny. The lack of emotional texture gives us plenty of awkward, stilted dialog to snicker at, including howlers like Linda Hunt’s bizarre little psychic-researching nun prefacing her supernatural theories with “In an age when no one believes in miracles ...” If that doesn’t make you laugh, consider this: The reason Hollywood keeps subjecting us to movies like Dragonfly is that—in a society beset by angel-mania and overrun by infomercial psychics—too many people believe in miracles. And they are only too willing to let Hollywood tell them it’s OK to believe in them.