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February 22, 2002

Movie Review: The Dragonfly's a moth


Dragonfly

Directed by Tom Shadyac

104m. rated PG-13


I went to see Dragonfly. I wound up seeing The Mothman Prophecies. Again. Oh, the title may have referred to a carnivorous rather than an herbivorous insect, and it may have had Kevin Costner instead of Richard Gere, but there's no mistake — the movie I saw was The Mothman Prophecies.

Well, at least the first quarter of Mothman Prophecies, anyway. Past that point, Mothman at least moved out of the hospital, away from its obsession with supernaturally inspired drawings of the title entities, and into an entirely new, suspense-filled part of the plot. In other words, the movie got a lot better. Dragonfly director Tom Shadyac and his committee of writers should have, for their movie's own good, continued their copycat ways. What's that, you say? Maybe Dragonfly wasn't spun in its entirety out of tired material purloined from Mothman? To that I say, don't be silly, cinematic plagiarism happens all the time; witness Antz vs. A Bug's Life (Jeffrey Katzenberg, you little devil), and the entire career of Tom Arnold. Besides, no one is dumb enough to write the Dragonfly script all by himself.

But write it they did. Sad to say, the filmmakers decided to milk everything out of a hospital setting (don't we get enough of that every Thursday night at 10, 9 Central?), specifically a pediatric oncology ward. In that setting, Kevin Costner is a doctor who can't seem to get enough of terminally ill kids (all smacking of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense) who draw eerie squiggles and claim to have had contact with his late wife. Without giving up too much important information, I can say that this was far too similar to the worst parts — i.e., the first and last parts — of The Mothman Prophecies. Please, somebody tell Hollywood that sometimes originality is a good idea. You don't get kicked out of the University of Chicago for it, either.

I suppose I should say a little bit about the story, if only to possibly delude you into seeing this movie. After all, isn't that the point of writing movie reviews: to pander to the lunkheads who pump the theaters full of dreck, by hyping their decades-old, rehashed storyline as "the hottest movie of the year," thereby getting ever-so-much closer to a prestigious position with one of those totally dishonest publicity whores like Sixty Second Preview and Movie Minute? Isn't that the point? Of course it is. So prepare yourself to be mesmerized by the heart-rending story of a man and his psychosis, so totally awe-struck by its appeal to every fiber of your body and mind that you will drop out of school immediately and spend every waking hour watching Dragonfly, thus personally ensuring that it will break Titanic's box-office records and earn the distinction of the best thing on earth. Ever. Better than God. Better than Nietzche.

The story (you're going to love it!): Joe Darrow (Costner) loses his wife Emily when she plummets to her death in a bus trying to navigate a muddy mountain road in Venezuela. He doesn't believe in an afterlife, but his disbelief is challenged by children who have come back from near-death experiences, and reported meeting Emily "in the rainbow." After a barrage of dragonfly shaped squiggles, unnerving occurrences at his house (could Emily be trying to contact him? How could they possibly have thought up such an ingenious plot-point?), and a gag-inducing visit with a nun who studies near-death experiences (Linda Hunt in a thankless role), Joe hastily catches a plane to Venezuela to find the site where he believes his wife is telling him to go.

Though I can't speak for anyone else, this is where the movie got really, well, intriguing for me. It seems Emily had been working on a medical mission of mercy among the Yanomamö, the people of the northern Amazon River basin who became well known after the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon used his work with them to "prove" that humans are naturally violent, fractious beings. The Yanomamö became even better known two years ago, when a best-selling book claimed that Chagnon had faked all his findings, started real conflict between Yanomamö where there wasn't any before, and even participated in eugenics experiments that may have introduced a virulent form of measles into the particularly vulnerable Yanomamö.

With that as my own personal subtext, I was wondering if the filmmakers would include any of this in their storyline. I should have known better. The Yanomamö that Joe encounters are cut from the same cloth as the Amazonian people that appear in the first segment of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only with these points belabored: they are wary of outsiders (here, xenophobia equals savagery — where is that equation in today's foreign policy?), they are suckers for pieces of eight, and they are nevertheless spiritually inviolate and noble. Come to think of it, they might as well be running the Vatican.

I realize that I haven't actually delivered the detailed story re-cap that I promised, but I'm not sure you need (or want) to hear it anyway. Suffice it to say, if Kevin Costner doesn't want to be considered a washed-up actor, he shouldn't be choosing washed-up scripts. As I oh-so-subtlely alluded to before, Dragonfly is awfully, awfully derivative — I swear, based on the first 15 minutes of Mothman Prophecies alone, there should be a lawsuit going on between whoever made those two movies. There really is nothing scintillating about the acting in Dragonfly, either, although Kathy Bates, in a one-note role, does play that note strong and in tune. Although only someone straight outta Mayberry wouldn't be able to see she was being set up to be a sympathetic lesbian character, I liked this role better than her gonzo lesbian in Primary Colors. As for everybody else? Forgettable.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the movie, but really, it was a harmless conceit, exactly the kind of substandard film that I expect to see in the first months of the year, when the studios bury movies that have no hope of box office or Oscar success. Many extraneous shots, many caricaturish parts, many cheap thrills — those are the hallmarks of studios' throwaway movies, and they give as good a sense of Dragonfly as anything else I could say. So what else will I say about Dragonfly? May it rest in the peace of video distribution, somewhere on the Blockbuster shelves between Crossroads and Glitter.

P.S. Here's a thought: What if Emily was secretly giving the Yanomamö measles? I smell a sequel!