Ever since Dances With Wolves garnered seven Oscars over a decade ago, Kevin Costner’s career has suffered a steady and unsatisfying decline. Never an actor of great range or emotion, he’s repeatedly misfired in multiple settings: big-budget epics (The Postman, Waterworld), quirky character roles (3000 Miles to Graceland), jock flicks (Tin Cup, For Love of the Game), laughably bad accents (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Thirteen Days) and sappy romantic dramas (The Bodyguard, Message in a Bottle). None have matched the aptness of his earlier performances, where he could at least wear his trademark self-effacing blandness like an old well-worn denim jacket. Costner takes another stab at a comeback with Dragonfly, a supernatural romance/thriller that earnestly attempts to be another Sixth Sense but instead proves to be merely second rate.
Dr. Joe Darrow (Costner) is a man consumed by mourning. It’s been six months since his wife Emily (Susanna Thompson) died in a Venezuelan bus accident while volunteering at a Red Cross field hospital. Emily’s personal totem was a dragonfly (she had an insect-shaped birthmark on her shoulder) and Joe sees reminders of her everywhere. He has been checking in on Emily’s former patients in the pediatric oncology ward, and now several of them are recovering from near-death experiences carrying messages for Joe – from Emily herself.
The film begs comparison to The Sixth Sense because it borrows from it so blatantly. From its theme (yearning for lost love), central character (a doctor dealing with kids), reliance on child actors to carry much of the dramatic load, and supernatural communications from beyond the grave, Dragonfly dutifully parrots many of the same elements that shaped The Sixth Sense but displays little of the same style or skill.
Part of the problem is Costner. An emotional black hole of an actor, he continually manages to suck the life out of any scene requiring any emoting or introspection. His standard expression is that of just having been conked with a two by four and as a result his alleged pain is rarely visible, much less believable, and what should be heartfelt moments become solemn pronouncements void of any conviction. Not that Costner is given much to work with here. The screenplay does a particularly poor job of conveying why Joe would consider his loss so great. Apart from numerous shots of Joe wistfully sighing at pictures of a beaming Emily and some generic platitudes from friends, any significant emotional connection between Joe and Emily is strictly hearsay.
Director Tom Shadyac previously foisted the false and flatulent Patch Adams on an unsuspecting world, and here again assembles a film like a scavenger hunt. He throws in all the standard spooky movie elements – rainy nights, squeaking doors, swaying lights, squawking animals – but with little connection or effect. Linda Hunt and Kathy Bates are wasted in generic supporting roles.
Shadyac also bears responsibility for the film’s most glaring shortcoming. Unlike The Sixth Sense, which slowly layered mood and then employed a deft twist near its conclusion to neatly change the audience’s perception of everything seen before, Dragonfly is more linear and simplistic. Joe is presented with a puzzle to solve and a single crucial clue, early on in the story. His search for the clue’s true meaning and what it leads him to discover are therefore less satisfying, quizzes being less intriguing than mysteries. His discovery process leads the story towards a seeming plot resolution that if utilized would have been shamelessly implausible, but then Shadyac pulls an even more maudlin and manipulative stunt to tie things together.
Dragonfly’s overly warm finale offends rather than rewards. Coupled with a characteristically catatonic Costner performance, it’s the equivalent of visual novocaine. – Bob Aulert