In Derp Blog Into Darkness, I take a plunge into the deep with movies I’ve never seen or (in some cases) never even heard of, with the only common thread throughout being that they were purchased by my partner in the years after the break with her religious upbringing. This gives me a range from mainstream comfort food to more daring, “rebellious” stuff.
A little boy wakes up in an overly color-saturated room. He asks for his dad. Upon not receiving any answer, he proceeds through an overly color-saturated hallway into an overly color-saturated garden. There, he finds his dad’s hanging corpse. A sweating Aaron Eckhart wakes up from his nightmare. Next, we find him driving through a beautiful autumnal New England landscape, as Ian McKellen’s voice tells us the tale of a little boy named Zachary Small and his adventures in a land called Neverwas. Eckhart ends up pulling into the driveway of a mental health institution named Millwood.
I describe these first few minutes of the movie in such detail because at this point, I was still feeling around as a viewer. This is one of those movies I had literally never even heard of, so I popped it in without even reading the DVD cover. Always an exciting proposition! And, you know, dayummmm – dat cast! Vera Farmiga isn’t even credited on the DVD cover, that’s how stacked with good actors this thing is. The writer-director did not ring a bell, but apparently he’s doing that Ashton Kutcher Steve Jobs biopic next, so let’s see if he’ll crank up the hues for that one.
We learn that Eckhart’s dad (Nick Nolte) was a successful children’s author who suffered from manic depression. His big smash hit was Neverwas, whose protagonist Zachary Small was based on his own son Zachary. Hospital administrator William Hurt tries to dissuade Eckhart from the job he’s applying for with the weirdest and lamest excuses ever (“Naww nawww you’re from a fancy college we’re too lame for you!”) but Eckhart really wants it and then Hurt’s like sighhhh okay you can sit in on this group session if you reaallly want it I guess. I’m not sure about this hospital’s hiring practices!
The group session has Alan Cumming and Vera Farmiga in it. Wandering the common room is a mute Ian McKellen as well, whom Hurt assures he’d love to have in his talk group if he ever feels so inclined. Cumming plays Jake, a guy who has problems with his fiancée. Farmiga plays Eleanna, a woman whom Eckhart compliments on having a nice name. Cumming is actually listed on the DVD cover, but he has two scenes and ten lines. I have no idea what his actual deal was, or if it somehow got resolved.
Quirky music (by Phillip Glass!) accompanies a montage of Eckhart getting to know the patients in one-on-one interviews. But… they don’t say funny stuff. In fact… they all seem to have genuine problems. Movie, you are confusing me!
That’s where the movie starts losing it: the set-up is fine, if a little derivative, but it never quite knows how to follow up on it. McKellen is all about the Neverwas book, so at first you think he’s an insane superfan of Nolte’s, but somewhere in act two it is revealed that Nolte met McKellen while he was in treatment for his depression, and just poured all of his ramblings into a children’s book with his own son as the protagonist.
The director of NEVERWAS should basically fall to his knees that he somehow got a hold of Ian McKellen post-LOTR. McKellen is so wonderful, he almost (almost!) makes you believe in the magic of Neverwas. All the actors are good, really, but McKellen is the effortless standout. The movie’s big problem is essentially that both the real world and Neverwas somehow feel undercooked. You get the conflict between Eckhart and McKellen, between Eckhart and his mom, and they even manage to make the half-hearted lovestory between Eckhart and Brittany Murphy feel somewhat relevant due to a small twist regarding her motivations*, but in the end when you see all the real world locations that inspired Neverwas, you just don’t know enough about the book’s world to be all wowe.
McKellen’s past is also shrouded in too much mystery – or mayhaps no one really thought it through? He “sabotaged” a construction site. That’s all we know. Did anyone get hurt/die? I onno! Enough to lock the sumbitch up for years though, transferring him from ward to ward constantly. McKellen manages to escape by somehow letting all the inmates wander the grounds one night, allowing them to dance quirkily and stuff in the moonlight. How McKellen does this is not explained. He says to Eckhart to meet him on the other side of the mountain, and Eckhart and Murphy give chase, wanting to bring him in before the cops hurt him.
So yeah, here’s where Eckhart (who never was too big on his dad’s book) gets helped tremendously by Hermione Murphy who starts recognizing landmarks from Neverwas. They’re almost there when Eckhart says “You have to stay here! Call my lawyer, he’ll know what to do!!” Uhhh okay bro. So there’s a tense stand-off between the police and unarmed McKellen (who is suddenly in Ren Faire geare and also has A FUCKING CASTLE** IN THE WOODS) which then gets defused by Murphy arriving with some sort of document. What that document entails is never revealed, but the sheriff tells his men to stand down. The movie ends with another McKellen VO, Eckhart working happily at the (now very well funded??) institution, and McKellen reigning as the king of Trash Castle. So they dropped all charges and declared him sane enough to walk around? I swear I did not fall asleep during this movie!
NEVERWAS feels like someone wanted to make a BIG FISH but got a little BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA mixed in there and then lucked the fuck out with its cast. It’s not exactly a shit sandwich (mostly due to McKellen), but there is a little layer of shit between the ham and the lettuce.
*But then they squander it and sideline Murphy for the finale, which feels like she really should have been present for, given the character’s love of the book.
**It’s made of trash, but it’s a really impressive structure nonetheless.