Once upon a time, Dr. Joe Darrow (Costner) and his wife, Dr. Emily Darrow (Susanna Thompson), were a fairy tale couple – soul mates and gifted physicians who seemed to have it all. Then, in a flash, the fairy tale ended. While serving a humanitarian aid mission in Venezuela, Emily loses her life in a freak bus accident, leaving Joe devastated well beyond the point of normal grief. He becomes embittered and intolerable, angry at life and cynical about the world around him. Nothing can penetrate his steady descent into anguished self-pity… except, perhaps, Emily's ghost.
Not that a trained physician would be so naïve as to believe in the supernatural, but the accumulation of coincidences eventually becomes too much to ignore: signs, moving objects and an assortment of near-death experiences from children, all of whom come back with some sort of cryptic message from Emily.
This routine carries on interminably, repeatedly circumventing logic for no reason but to seemingly incorporate a host incompatible genre clichés. Scary, spooky, suspenseful, wistful – “Dragonfly” is determined to rummage through the entire compendium of manipulative tactics, especially those that have absolutely no place in this movie at all. Finally, having exhausted every conceivable permutation on this charade, the movie allows Joe to do what it should have let him to in the first place, namely carting off to Venezuela to pick up the trail precisely where it left off.
It's worth pointing out that “Dragonfly” is not a film without substance. The essence of the story might have been very efficiently and effectively distilled into a short film. For feature-length storytelling, however, it's woefully inadequate with obvious tactics employed at every turn to stretch and elongate the narrative beyond its natural dimensions. Excessively obvious dialogue further aggravates the script's weaknesses, forcing characters into behaviors less consistent with natural human inclinations than the contrived demands of an overly mechanical story.
Despite the flaws, there's no question that a certain cadre of unsophisticated moviegoers will undoubtedly respond to the picture, which marks director Tom Shadyac's complete conversion from goofball comedies (“Ace Ventura,” “The Nutty Professor”) to the unabashed sentimentality he first sought to exploit in “Patch Adams.” And it's to Costner's credit that he's able to sell so much of the bathos as real emotion, especially with so little help from the script or his supporting actors. Most of the supporting cast, in fact, get nearly no chance to contribute much of anything. Linda Hunt, Joe Morton, Kathy Bates and Ron Rifkin scarcely get a decent minute's screen time between them, flitting in and out of scenes only as often as required to deliver some essential bit of exposition or, if they're lucky, a thoughtful gem of wisdom. Unfortunately, Costner can only do so much with next to nothing, and for a career that's already on the skids, that's not likely to be nearly enough. Starring Kevin Costner, Joe Morton, Ron Rifkin, Linda Hunt, Susanna Thompson, Jacob Vargas and Kathy Bates. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Written by David Seltzer and Brandon Camp & Mike Thompson. Produced by Mark Johnson, Tom Shadyac, Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. A Universal Pictures release. Supernatural Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and mild sensuality. Running time: 104 min.