There are doubtless many people who will see The Waterdance and deem it courageous, dignified, powerful even, for its well-intentioned compassion toward the disabled. I beg the forbearance of those whose lives have been afflicted with disability, and beg to differ with those whose contention it is that any movie treatment of paraplegics or quadriplegics amounts to de facto raising of consciousness and therefore is deserving of praise. The Waterdance, for this critic anyway, is a pile of heart-tugging, crippled rubbish. A poor substitute for an insightful investigation of tragedy, the film offers instead a sleek wheelchair ride through a veritable valley of gimp stereotypes. Its cumulative effect is - and I use this word advisedly - lame.
It should come as no surprise that Neal Jimenez (who wrote and co-directed The Waterdance with his UCLA Film School friend Michael Steinberg) is disabled, but the little insight shed on the rehabilitative process is what is truly mind-boggling. Taking cues from TV-movie tearjerkers too numerous to list here - and feature films such as Johnny Got His Gun, Whose Life is It, Anyway?, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July - Jimenez gingerly traverses a low road and goes nowhere. His film is directionless and frustratingly neutral where it should be, if anything, poignant.
The story of a writer who (like Jimenez) is injured in a hiking accident and comes to a rehabilitative center for six months promotes a storytelling formula more time-withered than Rose Kennedy. A formula, to boot, that has been applied as much to hospitals as army camps, accounting offices, and supermarkets: You place a cross section of society in a uncongenial setting (a physical rehab center is perfecto), and bingo! - you've got yourself a movie. If the crusty-but-benevolent crips exhibit the right stuff you may even be talking a sequel - or better yet, a prime-time hit series: Northern Exposure Meets My Left Foot, to borrow briefly from The Player's low-rent script condensations.
Not that the tone of The Waterdance is gratuitously upbeat. On the contrary, the approach is, initially at least, somber and depressing as hell. But there is always lurking in the background a sense that, whatever the hardships visited upon the film's handicapped players, a bond not unlike brotherhood will purify, raise the spirits, and yield them the strength to, as William Faulkner put it in his Nobel acceptance speech, "endure and prevail." This is, among other things, a frivolous film. The humor is too quick to rear its head; and granted, humor is a necessary human need, especially as a cathartic force in adverse situations, but The Waterdance makes light of too many misfortunes.
Character detail is especially sorry. Eric Stoltz, who plays the young writer Joel Garcia, is a particular stretch. We know he's a writer because he peers longingly at the camera, purses his lips intently, and speaks in a high, hypersensitive whisper. (The goatee and earring suggest a wanna-be Californian literary darling such as T. Coraghessan Boyle.) Never do we catch a glimpse of him writing or, for that matter, reading. But he's one profound literato: At a strip bar Garcia observes that, in the world of Flannery O'Connor, such a place would signal redemption for its customers. It's a good thing we're not offered examples of Joel's prose, or we would conclude that a life sentence in a wheelchair wasn't enough punishment.
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The supporting characters include Bloss, a burly former biker (William Forsythe) whose racist mindset is abated by exposure to the center's ethnic minorities; Raymond Hill, a former Don Juan (well-played, as always, by Wesley Snipes) whose wife and daughter abandon him, easily the most tragic character in the film; Rosa, a saucy ward doctor (Elizabeth Pena) who secretly has a crush on Garcia; and the writer's girlfriend, Anna (Helen Hunt), a saintly little blonde number who comes to play Scrabble and to (successfully) restore his spirits and (in vain) to resurrect his sexual organs.
The six months pass, and the film ends with a protracted - and Jimenez would like to believe, all-too-knowing - question mark. Life goes on. But the weak, open-ended close of The Waterdance is one of its sizable misjudgments - it's a parody of cinema verite. The better question, actually, is how this feeble band of spavined survivors could be conceived by a writer whose own life experience should have lent the appropriate authority needed for this difficult task. And further, the fact that Jimenez's script for River's Edge was widely and deservedly honored should have lent him the requisite eloquence. It only serves to show that Gertrude Stein's famous rhetorical wisdom applies to wheelchair-bound screenwriters as much as flowers: A hack is a hack is a hack.
Directed by Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg; written by Neal Jimenez; with Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes, William Forsythe, Helen Hunt, Grace Zabriskie, and Elizabeth Pena.