Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Neverwas. Out today - without Ian McKellan, this would be awful. (****4/10)

Neverwas is a movie in the tradition of Hook and Bridge to Terabithia, where fantasy and reality intersect in some bizarre way. It stars Aaron Eckhardt, Brittany Murphy and Ian McKellan. This film was made in 2005, never hit the theatres, and finally gets it’s first release, courtesy of Alliance Films, on DVD today. It’s the story of an imagined land called Neverwas. Like Narnia or Oz or Middle Earth, Neverwas exists only in a children’s book written by Nick Nolte. The star of this book is Zachary, Nolte’s son. While writing the book, Nolte is losing his mind, and gets sent to a mental institution. For the next few years, he made life very difficult for his family before dying a strange and unpleasant death. The movie picks up about thirty years later. The book is now a worldwide classic, and Nolte’s son is a grown man (Eckhardt). He is now a psychiatrist, who takes a job at the institute that once housed his father.

There are some other big names here. Notably Vera Farminga, who starred as the psychiatrist in The Departed and has become one of the most respected actresses in the business. But then, this film was made in 2005, before she was famous. And although the credits use her name, she has one line in the movie and maybe six seconds of screen time. Which indicates something about the film. Neverwas was made three years ago, but released only now. And they put a famous name in the credits, even though that person had very little to do with the movie. Maybe they are trying to compensate for something? Hide something? Like the fact that this movie is not very good? Well, it isn’t. In fact, it would be quite terrible without one key ingredient. Ian McKellan.

I like Brittany Murphy, she has a very charming and childlike innocence about her, which works well in this film. She plays a reporter who is doing a story on the phenomenon of Neverwas and the enigma that was it’s author. I also like Aaron Eckhardt, who has the sort of cocky arrogance that works in Thank You For Smoking, but not here. The two are supposed to be some kind of meant-for-each-other couple, but does that ever feel flat, and leads to a painfully contrived oh-my-god-she’s-really-a-reporter-and-I’m-furious scene. Then there’s a maudlin, staggeringly stupid scene where Eckhardt reveals that he BLAMES himself for his father’s DEATH! But thankfully, right when each of these terrible scenes gets so obnoxious that you want to give up on the movie altogether, here comes Ian McKellan again, and things pick right back up.
McKellan plays a patient at the mental hospital who believes that he is the king of the actual land of Neverwas. He is magnificently looney, a wonderfully deranged old man but...is he maybe telling the truth? Is Neverwas...actually real? I won’t reveal the details there, but the journey to that point is terrific. Without McKellan, this movie would be incredibly awful. But whenever he’s on the screen, the film has a certain electricity which is well worth watching. McKellan is one of the greatest actors working today, and although he will likely be remembered for playing Magneto more than any other character, he has done wonderful work in many fine films. And some otherwise horrible ones, like Neverwas.

It’s clear why this didn’t get a theatrical release. It’s too old for kids and too young for adults and too cheesy for cynical teenagers. And what happens to good movies that are too old for kids and too young for everyone else? They go direct to DVD. Apparently, so too do the bad ones.

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