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Review: 'In Dreams' closer to 'Nightmare on Elm' for adults

Web posted on: Friday, January 22, 1999 2:20:29 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Pity the ambitious director. I can remember when Martin Scorsese used to talk about how he survived the big-time filmmaking game by directing one movie for "them" (the bottom-line-loving studios), then one for himself. The big shots are more likely to throw you a bone if you've been known to cooperate when duty calls, and, if you're a proven artist, it doesn't hurt to keep you happy anyway.

For instance, he'd buckle down and shoot "The Color of Money" (big stars, big budget, high commercial hopes) as a sort of pre-penance that would then allow him to make "The Last Temptation of Christ" (naughty story about Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, won't make a dime). It's no coincidence that Scorsese's currently making a movie starring Nicolas Cage as a drug-addicted New York City ambulance driver. His last movie was ("zzzzzzzz") "Kundun."


Watch the theatrical preview for "In Dreams"
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Neil Jordan seems to work it this way, too, except that he usually does a couple for himself, then a couple for them. And, boy, the ones he's done for them haven't turned out very well. Ever seen "High Spirits," or maybe "We're No Angels?" I didn't think so.

Not very good, but has atmosphere

The closest Jordan's ever come to pulling things off in a hugely commercial way (outside of the surprise success of "The Crying Game") is "Interview with the Vampire," a project that was so pre-sold when filming commenced, Lucy Ricardo probably could have turned it into a hit.

It wasn't very good, but it had a lot of atmosphere, and that's about as much as you should expect to get out of Jordan's latest movie for "them," "In Dreams." It stars Annette Bening as an apple-fixated woman who's frazzled out of her head when things first kick into gear. Don't worry, though; she gets progressively worse from there.

Bening plays Claire, yet another of those unlucky folks (the kind you only find in the movies) who suddenly start seeing crimes through the eyes of a brutal killer. There've been a thousand variations on this one over the years, everything from "The Eyes of Laura Mars" to David Cronenberg's often-marvelously cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dead Zone."

"In Dreams," save for a few moments of effective imagery, adds very little to the stew. It seems like Jordan is shooting for something on the order of Nicolas Roeg's unsettling "Don't Look Now," (even down to his strategic use of the color red) but what he's wound up with is more like "A Nightmare on Elm Street" for adults. And Robert Downey, Jr., of all people, plays Freddie Krueger!

An apple phobia

Claire, you see, has been having strange, disjointed dreams about a child who's gone missing recently. She's convinced that she's seeing someone murder the kid in an apple orchard, but she's not really sure. (Her husband, an airline pilot played by Aidan Quinn, rightfully assumes she's a crackpot.) The apple motif appears repeatedly throughout the film, usually to less-than-inspiring effect.

One particularly absurd moment consists of Claire falling into a screaming fit and sweeping hundreds of shiny red apples off of her kitchen table and onto the floor. Then she desperately tries to cram them into the trash compactor, all at the same time. Anyone who has a trash compactor knows that this is a bad idea. Stinky-looking brown water suddenly spews from the drain, and partially mashed-up apples are sprayed all over the walls and floor.

Professional cleaning women will undoubtedly scream in horror. Everyone else will just giggle over a woman who's overcome by apple sauce.

Eventually, Claire decides she's somehow privy to murders that somebody else is about to commit, and that special somebody is inserting these visions into her head. There's one pretty scary scene where Claire's little girl disappears after a school play, and the cops fan out through the woods looking for her as Claire wails inconsolably.

When the daughter is found at the bottom of a nearby lake, Claire knows that she'll have to find the murderer or the dreams will never stop. Or maybe she just wants revenge. Bening's character isn't much help. She does little more than shriek at the top of her lungs for most of the movie. I can't say that I blame her, but I started to get as rattled as she was after a while, for all the wrong reasons.

Coherent, but shrill

The rest is coherent, but in a very shrill manner. Stephen Rea shows up eventually, just like he does in every other Neil Jordan movie. This time, however, he's playing a psychiatrist with a thick New York (New Jersey?) accent, one that adds absolutely nothing to the character. It's basically an empty gesture. For the first time that I know of, Rea seems bored on screen rather than just photogenically soul-sick.

(The psychiatric hospital that he works at, by the way, looks more like a dungeon than a hospital. Bening gets trussed up and locked away in a manner that would have "60 Minutes" breathing down the doctors' necks before they could say "American Medical Association.")

There's a plot device concerning a town that was flooded when the lake was originally put in, and it makes for some nice imagery. The imagery is all there is to it, though. By the time Downey showed up, looking like a cross between the bass player for a grunge band and one of those fops on a Three Musketeers candy bar, I couldn't have cared less. Jordan's poetry (what little there was in evidence, anyway) finally becomes nothing more than action and noise. We've got 2,000 other directors who can manage that.

"In Dreams" might be pretty disturbing if you're in the right mood. Or if you terrified of apples. There's violence, bad language, and sex, and it's all presented in a ominous manner. When all is said and done, it's really just an ugly-spirited drag. Rated R. 100 minutes.
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