Call it a supernatural renaissance if you will, but everyday cinematic folk are starting to see dead people again. While ghost stories have been around forever, the dead have recently been showing up in force. Just last year, Kevin Bacon had creepy encounters with a teen in "Stir of Echoes," Nicolas Cage repeatedly saw a dead girl he couldn't save in "Bringing out the Dead," and in "The Sixth Sense" Haley Joel Osment barely had the chance to see anyone who was alive, what with all of the dead people hanging around him.
Now, "Waking the Dead," a laborious romantic drama joins the ranks. Then again, maybe it doesn't since we never find out one way or the other whether the protagonist's dead girlfriend is haunting him or simply a figment of his still grief-stricken imagination. While actor turned director Keith Gordon ("Mother Night," "A Midnight Clear") clearly isn't going for the "knock your socks off" final twist and related horrors that M. Night Shyamalan did in "Sense," the nebulous element he employs here simply doesn't cut it.
Adapting author Scott Spencer's 1986 novel of the same name, Gordon and co-screenwriter Robert Dillon have purposefully left everything bathed in gray, presumably to interest the viewer to some greater degree while also giving the film more of an artistic, rather than commercial feel. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of an idea that works better in concept (or at least in literary form) rather than as eventually realized on the big screen.
Although the "is he being haunted" or "is he going crazy" hook does keep things interesting for a while, it ultimately never ends up amounting to much. With their film purposefully devoid of any real scares - or even much of a simple, creepy or eerie aura - the filmmakers then simply resort to continually alternating between the story's past and present, presumably to generate some semblance of interest or intrigue about how the two eventually tie together.
Despite the effort, however, the past as presented here doesn't offer many answers and/or clues as much as it simply fills up time when not otherwise delivering exposition in showing the dramatic arc of the lover's romantic relationship.
While one can certainly sympathize with the protagonist's plight, the film never allows him to become very proactive in solving, let along simply exploring his sightings. As such, it misses many opportunities to become a more intriguing, not to mention heartfelt film.
For one, the film could have played off the notion that Fielding's running for office has simply exhausted him to the point of a near breakdown and thus the resultant and potentially comforting visions of Sarah, the long dead love of his life. Although that's somewhat hinted at, it's never developed.
At the same time, Fielding could have been somehow indirectly (or even directly) involved with Sarah's death and his subsequent guilt would be the cause of his visions. Then again, she could have been murdered by party officials who saw her as an obstacle to the budding politician's political career, or she could have realized this herself and thus disappeared to help him out in a roundabout fashion.
Any of those notions, or even other potential ones -- including her being a real ghost (of the haunting variety or not) - would have generated more intrigue and substance for the film as the truth could have been slowly revealed through the many flashbacks that are intermingled with the main plot. Beyond one moment where Fielding chases after a woman he believes to be Sarah, the rest of the time the protagonist mostly just mopes around and that makes for a rather boring experience for viewers.
While one can appreciate that Gordon wasn't intending or trying to make a suspense thriller - supernatural or not - and instead wanted to make a touching romantic drama with a twist, something - anything - would have helped this otherwise listless film. Although there's nothing inherently wrong with Gordon's cinematic quest - at least as long as the resulting picture is interesting, entertaining or heartfelt in some way - it unfortunately isn't any of the above.
I kept waiting for much of anything to happen, such as Fielding visiting Sarah's grave and perhaps even contemplating digging it up. Of course, he'd then be torn between wanting to know and not wishing to disturb her remains and/or facing the possibility of discovering the truth (if the body's not there, there's some sort of conspiracy occurring, and if it is, he's either going crazy or she's haunting him). While there's plenty of possibilities there, unfortunately none of them are explored.
The performances, while competent and delivered by a talented and attractive cast, don't help matters much as they often feel as if they were delivered by thespians awakened from the dead themselves. While Jennifer Connelly ("Inventing the Abbotts," "The Rocketeer") does at least deliver an occasionally impassioned take on her character, Billy Crudup's ("The Hi-Lo Country," "Without Limits") role as her haunted lover is rather lethargic and never emotionally gripping enough to make the audience truly care about his predicament.
Meanwhile, Oscar-nominated actress Janet McTeer ("Tumbleweeds") is wasted in a small role as Fielding's compassionate sister, while Hal Holbrook ("The Bachelor," "The Firm") is similarly underused as the protagonist's mentor. One gets the sense that at one time their roles, as well as some others, may have had more flesh on them, but as they appear here they're anorexic at best.
While it's possible some viewers may be pulled in by the "lost love" story and won't mind the momentum-challenged plot, most everyone else will probably find this picture lacking in much of anything to hold their interest. Although some potential is present, the film never develops nor capitalizes on it, resulting in a lethargic production at best.
While Haley Joel Osment's character may have commented, "I see dead people" in that summer blockbuster, I can near assuredly state that this film's life expectancy at the box office isn't great and that its title will best be remembered for describing what the ushers will have to do to moviegoers to resurrect them from lethargy after seeing it. As such, "Waking the Dead" rates as just a 3 out of 10.