Dir Tom Shadyac. US. 2002. 104min.

The Mothman Prophecies meets Patch Adams in Dragonfly, a preposterously plotted, highly sentimental supernatural thriller that lacks suspense or credibility even on its own terms. A star vehicle for Kevin Costner, who has not had a decent role in a long time, this manipulative hokum is another Hollywood picture that tries to cash in on the success of The Sixth Sense, the film that began the current cycle of supernatural horror family melodramas. Dragonfly has the misfortune of being released right after The Mothman Prophecies, which although inept is better and more enjoyable. Costner is no longer a viable box-office star and negative reviews and word-of-mouth should quickly send this lame Universal production to the video bin. Indeed, the opening weekend was vastly disappointing, with grosses of about $10m for a PG-13 picture.

The only plausible reel that may connect emotionally with the viewers is the first one which describes how Dr Joe Darrow (Costner), the head of emergency services for Chicago Memorial Hospital, loses his graceful and pregnant wife Emily (Thompson) who dies in a road accident while on a medical mercy mission in the remote Venezuelan mountains.

Though respected for his expertise in treating trauma and triage, Joe quickly realizes that his professional knowledge and around-the-clock work provides little comfort in coming to terms with his loss. In unnecessary flashbacks, we get sight of the Darrow's loving marriage and the argument that the couple had when Joe voiced opposition to his wife's risky trip. Very much au courant with the zeitgeist, Joe, who's turned cynical over the years, needs to be reminded and reproached by his wife of their idealist dedication to their profession and the urgent need to impart of good American practices and values.

Six months later, Emily's body has not been recovered, but Joe, haunted by visions of her final moments, refuses to accept her death. He throws himself into marathon shifts, seven days a week, at the hospital, exhibiting alarmingly erratic behaviour that compels the cold-hearted hospital administrator, Hugh (John Sayles' regular Morton) to order Joe to take time off.

Despite the efforts of caring friends, colleagues and neighbours, Joe remains isolated by his unexpressed grief. The best scenes in the film belong to Joe and next-door neighbour Miriam (Bates), who's still grieving the loss of her lover, but exhibits a more rational, matter-of-fact approach to surviving life's tragedies.

Strangely, since all of these productions were made prior to the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, loss of beloved family members and inconsolable grief dominate American movies right now, underlining each in its own way how society and culture are ill-equipped in preparing us for such traumatic events. Yet, in the highly contrived Dragonfly, this grave issue almost seems like an excuse for throwing the hero into an ordeal.

Indeed, alone in his rambling a house, with a listening (but not talking) parrot, Joe is spooked one night when Emily's treasured dragonfly paperweight crashes from a bedside table to the floor, as if it had been pushed by an unseen force. Soon, reminders of Emily are everywhere, and if the blue dragonfly is the most prominent, it's because of a birthmark on her tender shoulder.

Second act is an amalgam of the schmaltzy elements of Patch Adams (which was directed by Shadyac) and numerous B-level horror flicks. Joe's unease intensifies when he visits Emily's former patients in the pediatric oncology ward, where he begins to hear Emily's voice through near-dead or fatally ill children. Shocked that all the children recognize him as "Emily's Joe," and know about his life, Joe is reminded of a promise he made to Emily to look in on the kids while she's gone.

In an early scene, Joe is told by friends at a bar that he and Emily were the perfect team: "She was the heart and you were the mind." The clash between heart and mind has always marked American dramas, favouring the dictates of the former over the latter. Indeed, from then on, it's the screenwriters' job to see that Joe listens to his heart.

As dreary as Patch Adams was, at least it gave Robin Williams an opportunity to entertain the kids, whereas in Dragonfly, Joe wants to learn from them. In one sentimental scene after another, Joe befriends Jeffrey (Bailey Jr), a bright boy who has survived numerous near-death experiences. The doc is all ears when Jeffrey claims that he has seen Emily "inside a rainbow" and that she's trying to communicate with him. Then another boy returning from the brink of death tells a remarkably similar story, adding to it a drawing of a mysterious abstract shape that begins to appear in other contexts of Joe's world.

Least convincing segments are those between Joe and Sister Madeline (Hunt), a Catholic nun who has studied the murky depths of near-death experiences but was dismissed from Joe's hospital after the tabloid press "trivialized" her work with sensationalistic yarns. It's here that the message of the film -one must look beyond the ordinary for answers to life's unsolvable puzzles - comes across most simplistically and blatantly.

All Joe needs to hear is that he is not crazy, and that his obsession with Emily justifies his conduct. Almost forgetting that it's a supernatural horror thriller, Dragonfly's last act belongs more to an action-adventure on the order of the Indiana Jones movies, or The Fugitive, with Joe going against all odds to Venezuela and the scene of the accident. The picture even shamelessly lifts the image of Joe's jumping into a steep waterfall out of The Fugitive (which was seen before in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid).

An actor of limited range and even more confined voice, Costner gives one of his most boring performances in years, failing to alleviate the ludicrously concocted yarn from its interminable tedium.

Prod co: Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Gran Via/Shady Acres production
Dist US: Universal
Exec prods: James D Brubaker, Michael Bostick
Prods: Mark Johnson, Tom Shadyac, Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber
Scr: David Seltzer, Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, based on Camp and Thompson's story

Cinematographer: Dean Semler
Prod des: Linda DeScenna
Ed: Don Zimmerman
Music: John Debney
Main cast: Kevin Costner, Kathy Bates, Susanna Thompson, Joe Morton, Robert Bailey Jr.