THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


As much as I hate to admit it, there is sometimes a difference between what critics think and what general audiences think. I pride myself on the fact that I try to approach a movie just like any normal moviegoer: There's no predetermined agenda - I just want to be entertained. Get on any movie-discussion forum, though, and you'll find plenty of "civilians" slamming critics for not liking the same movies that they like. A prime example of this occurred earlier this year with a picture called Dragonfly. For the most part, critics hated it. They tore it into shreds. Dragonfly was by no means a box office blockbuster, but I spoke to a lot of non-critics who saw the movie and loved it. In fact, not one of those people had a negative opinion of it.

I liked Dragonfly, too. Because critics see between 100 and 500 movies a year, we tend to see certain things over and over. Patterns develop in movie plots that occasional moviegoers don't pick up on. So when a new film gives us something we have seen a million times before, we call it "predictable" or "unimaginative" when, in fact, it might not necessarily be that way for most people. Dragonfly certainly nagged at the critic in me. It was at times manipulative and melodramatic. And that ending - I can't believe I didn't see it coming a mile away! There were, however, two things I couldn't ignore. First, I really didn't see the ending coming. Second, the rest of the movie's "flaws" were mitigated by the fact that Dragonfly hit me on an emotional level. For me, the emotional response always wins out over the intellectual response. Isn't that what moviegoing is all about?

Kevin Costner receives a message from beyond in Dragonfly
Kevin Costner plays Joe Darrow, an ER doctor whose wife Emily (Susanna Thompson) - also a doctor - does charity work with children in impoverished countries. While in Venezuela, Emily is killed in a bus accident. Joe is devastated and buries himself in his work to avoid the pain. He spends a lot of his time in the children's oncology unit, following up on the kids his wife treated. Some of them report having seen visions of Emily or even of having spoken with her. They draw pictures, claiming that she told them what to draw. All the drawings look alike. Things get weird at home too. Emily loved dragonflies and suddenly visions of them start appearing everywhere. Eventually, Joe believes he is being sent a message. He must go to Venezuela. Emily is calling him to go. He then embarks on a journey that changes his life forever.

Dragonfly is one of those pseudo-metaphysical stories that seem to be popular in our New Age culture. We're fascinated with ideas of spirituality and communication from beyond (just look at the success of "Crossing Over with John Edwards" or the tons of New Age books topping the best seller lists). Movies have covered similar terrain, most notably the smash hit Ghost. This kind of supernatural romance is rarely done well because, by nature, it walks a fine line between being emotional and being ludicrous. There was certainly no reason to think Dragonfly would handle the subject with any grace or sincerity. After all, aside from 13 Days, Costner hadn't made a good movie in years. Director Tom Shadyac showed considerable comic skills early in his career (Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor), but then turned out the insipid Patch Adams, which practically assaulted the audience with its cloying sentimentality.

Somehow, this unlikely combination pulled off an intensely tricky theme. The role of Joe is surprisingly perfect for Costner, as it allows him to tap into his strength of playing hopelessly-romantic-yet-internally-troubled men. Shadyac must have learned from his Patch Adams experience; he avoids laying it on too thick here. The director understands that the center of this story is Joe's love for Emily and the grief it causes him to go through as he searches for answers. That's what hits home for the audience. It's not about the supernatural, it's about what's inside the living. The ending - far-fetched though it may be - works because we come to care about Joe's need for understanding.

Dragonfly is not a great film, but it never got a fair shake from most of my critical brethren. Ticket-buyers knew the emotions in the story were very real.

Universal's DVD release contains some extra features that are of interest. In addition to the widescreen presentation, Dragonfly also has some deleted scenes that, while intriguing, show that Shadyac wisely opted for subtlety over bombast. My guess is that the scenes were dropped because they spelled things out too clearly rather than letting the audience linger on the ideas a little more personally. The filmmaker provides a commentary track, and there is also a behind the scenes documentary as well as a segment in which author Betty Eadie describes her own life-after-death experience.

I know the Dragonfly DVD is going to appeal to people who, like me, found this movie touching on an emotional level. If you skipped it during its theatrical run, check it out on disc. This is a real sleeper.

( out of four)

Dragonfly is rated PG-13 for thematic material and mild sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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