Just take a second and look at that cast list. Look at it! Boasting a murderer’s row of top tier acting talent, one wonders (before actually slogging through the film itself) just how or why Neverwas was never accorded an official theatrical release, moldering on Miramax’s shelves for two years before ending up with the straight to DVD kiss of death (sans extras). But then one suffers through the film itself, and wonders just how or why an Aaron Eckhart or an Ian McKellan agreed to sign on for this piffling pabulum in the first place.
It’s the key central mystery lying at the heart of Neverwas, just how it got made, and with such deep talent – and it’s the only compelling question for a film that wants to pose many, but is to timid to ask anything at all, of itself, or of its audience. Neverwas is a head scratcher, for sure, an utterly confounding film, but not for the reasons it wishes it were.
Trying to settle into that rare, tenuous space where imagination spills over into and becomes conflated with the real world, Neverwas hitches its wagon to the nascent star of magical realism that has, in recent years, enjoyed a mini-vogue among the middleroad art-house crowd. Like Big Fish, Finding Neverland, and, most obviously, The Fisher King, Neverwas wants to be all meta about fabulist worlds where it’s safe for adults to indulge their own inner childlike wish fulfillment without the attendant loss of integrity, accompanying a straight-up storybook fantasy aimed only at children.
It’s the magic of the quotidian, of a special fantasy world lurking just a few steps from our everyday humdrum world, a salvation clearly visible if only we stop and take the time to see, to really see. It wants to be precisely what it’s offering, with the main characters discovering the very “real” fantasy world we ourselves are invited to lose ourselves in.
This is always a tough trick, since adult viewers are saddled with self-consciousness, self-awareness, and ironic detachment which make such imaginative immersion difficult, such childlike wonder and belief a rarity. We are meant to give in just when the main character gives in, to have that a-ha! moment precisely when the fantasy world is revealed to be “real”, where we all become heroes of the story. Fantasy spills into reality and a whole new world is born.Neverwas wants to be precisely this sort of film, and wants it a little too much, and too desperately.
Psychiatrist Zachary Riley (Eckhart, who also co-produced) is the emotionally damaged son of a famous children’s book author (Nick Nolte, cast, surprisingly, as a shambling alcoholic wreck). His book, dedicated to his son, is called (shockingly) “Neverwas”, and features, as its hero, a boy named (oddly enough) Zachary, who one day found a path into the enchanted eponymous kingdom.
Years later, Zach (the corporeal one) takes a job at the Millwood psychiatric hospital, the exact clinic where his father had been institutionalized and treated unsuccessfully, leading to eventual suicide, which had tragic life altering/ psyche-damaging fallout for Zach. He has returned here to purge personal demons, to set the past right. He may also be starting to become the very hero his father wrote about so long ago, and may be on the verge of discovering the path to the kingdom—he just needs that extra nudge to see what should be so plain
Enter Gabriel (Ian McKellan, blusteringly hamming it up in supreme fashion), a particularly difficult patient, who is not only is obsessed with the world of “Neverwas”, but actually believes that he lives in it and is its king. Confronting Gabriel may be the key to Zach coming to terms with his father, or just drive him mad himself—or, lead him to salvation in “Neverwas”. Because, you see, “Neverwas” is a very real place, just over the mountain visible from the hospital windows. Gabriel is in exile from his kingdom, held captive by those who would destroy it, but he will return, with the help of Zach, to reclaim his throne.
Or, something like that. Beset by a confusion of narrative, thematic and aesthetic issues, Neverwas’ chief crime is its lack of imaginative cohesion. At first, “Neverwas”, the place and the book, is almost an afterthought to the familial melodrama driving the main story—the fantasy world is separate from and secondary to the film world and the story, both undermining the idea and promise contained in the title, as well as nearly rendering it complete obsolete.
As the film shifts away from dealing with Zach’s demons in the first half to indulging Gabriel’s mad flights of fancy in the second, we are abruptly asked to accept the reality of this mythical kingdom and its crucial importance to saving Zach. The whole thing pulls apart in a ludicrous climax so staggeringly awful (involving a siege by police of a castle made out of junkyard scrap metal surrounded by bombs made of sugar water) I had to back up several times just to make sure my DVD player wasn’t on the frtiz.
It’s a shame that it’s really all such a hopeless mess, since it’s obvious that Neverwas has its heart in the right place, and that this is a very personal story to first time writer/ director Joshua Stern. Alas, his intentions and execution are too often just as completely schizophrenic as the patients he locks up in the hospital, and his metaphors and fabulist indulgences are unsubtle and obtuse, wildly missing the mark of thematic/ narrative complementariness essential to making the slide between the real world and fantasy work seem natural (cf. with the best recent examplar of this tricky tightrope walk, Pan’s Labyrinth).
Add on top of all that the squandering a dream cast (seriously, I can’t get away from this: how did a first time writer/ director manage to nab even one of these big guns, let alone a whole gaggle of them?) and it’s just a colossal lemon, a stain on all their careers which luckily no one will ever see and is just best forgotten. Would that Neverwas never were…