After years living in his shadow, Zach (Aaron Eckhart) decides to try and piece together the truth about his famous father’s tragic suicide. So he leaves Cornell, where he’s a top psychiatrist, and takes a job at a small-town mental hospital known as Millwood. He lies to the resident administrator Dr. Reed (William Hurt), making up a story about “helping a friend” to get hired on, and, almost immediately, he’s confronted with aging loony Gabriel Finch (Sir Ian McKellen).
Turns out, Zach is really hoping to uncover information about his dad—who was a patient at Millwood - and his new insane charge just may have some crucial knowledge. Of course, getting it out of his manic mind may be difficult, especially since Gabriel is convinced he is the King of Neverwas - the fictional land Zach’s father wrote about. The connection between the two is immediate, but the path to personal discovery is long and very complicated.
It’s not made much better by an old friend of the family (Brittany Murphy) or Zach’s fragile mother (Jessica Lange), both of whom have their own ideas about where this investigation should go. But our hero wants closure, and the only way to get it seems to b e to help Gabriel discover the truth about Neverwas. Oddly enough, it may be Zach who needs to open his mind to the potential possibilities.
Neverwas should have never been. Cinematic minds smarter than the ones behind the production should have stopped this cloying claptrap before it even made it to the storyboard stage. They should have seen that nothing good could come out of this manipulative M. Night Shyamalan-style spiel, a narrative overflowing with way too many clues and not enough answers. There is a vagueness and insularity to Joshua Michael Stern’s script that acts like a barricade to understanding the relevance of what is happening, keeping us from caring about Zach’s familial issues, Gabriel’s mental condition, and the secret behind the fairytale at the center of the story.
If Stern - who also directed - was brave enough to confront the issues head-on, to really take a chance and offer up an ending that would gel with all his portents and symbols, we might walk away satisfied. But the first-time filmmaker is just too in love with everything he’s doing—heading a major, A-list cast, creating an ethereal piece of motion-picture magic, mixing the allegorical with the artful - to worry about connecting with the viewer.
Since his characters are all so calm, never really letting go with passion or opinion, they sink directly into the story, acting as mere catalysts for the numerous twists and turns ahead. Indeed, when one looks at Neverwas overall, it’s not really a movie about people. It’s about pawns in a massive game of three-tiered cinematic chess, and not even Mr. Spock understands the logic this time around.
Going back to the finale for a moment, a bit of plot point spoiling is required to discuss its destructive impact. Those who, even after this review, would probably find themselves interested in viewing this film may want to move on to the end of this discussion. For all those who either don’t care, or are immune from the aftereffects of such pre-knowledge, here we go. All throughout the 90-plus minutes that Stern drags us through, there is one major question left unanswered: Does the land of Neverwas really exist? Is it real or just a figment of Gabriel’s dementia? Stern makes almost all the plot threads lead up to such a revelation. The answer, oddly enough, is a cop-out.
Gabriel indeed made up the entire thing in his mind. It is his elaborate fantasy world that Zach’s father usurped for his own benefit. The guilt, in combination with the overwhelming success of the book, drove the man to depression and self-destruction. In order to understand that his father was not a bad man, our hero must realize the truth behind the false fairytale kingdom and see how the obsession eventually destroyed him. Now all of that is well and good, except Stern has prepared us for none of it.
Indeed, his version of these concepts leads to only one logical conclusion: Neverwas is a real place. Two men visited it and it drove them crazy (crashing between reality and the magical will do that). By learning of its existence, Zach could understand his father’s feelings, and give Gabriel his mind back. It would be satisfying and symbolic, believing in your dreams vs. believing in what doctors and drugs tell you.
But Neverwas never intended to be so brave. Stern is out to play it safe, to scrounge around the outskirts of innovation while delivering derivative Hollywood hokum. As a director, he’s desperate to copy other filmmaker’s stylistic tricks (fractured editing, overcranking, saturated golden light, mostly monochrome flashbacks), while his dialogue is all suggestions and incomplete concepts. No one ever comes right out and says things in this movie. Instead, they beat around the bush like groundskeepers looking for gophers.
Perhaps more importantly, he lets his accomplished actors languish in pointless moments of meaningless behavior. Jessica Lange, sporting a new fright mask façade, is reduced to playing a delicate matron without a single subtextual reason for being so brittle. William Hurt has a nice unsettled quality to his part as a clinic administrator, but he has so little to do that his impact remains marginal. It’s good to see Brittany Murphy playing something other than a doormat ditz, and Aaron Eckhart does decent open-faced consternation well. But because of Stern’s sloppy way with the written word, we never come to care about these people’s problems.
Instead, we keep wondering how this all will end, where this filmmaker will finally go with his attempted warm and fuzzy fairytale. The answer undermines everything that came before, creating the kind of anger that only a half-baked bit of blithering balderdash can generate. Again, Neverwas never needed to be. Such a finite finding is the only way to evaluate this incomplete effort.