A REBELLIOUS YOUNG MAN. WITH HIS OWN VISION OF THE FUTURE. AND HIS OWN FANTASY OF LOVE.
Part of the reason I have so many movies is that I have a tendency to buy stuff that looks interesting, but that I’ve not really heard of. Taking a chance on something you have little to no knowledge can occasionally yield some fine results. It’s part of what makes people like me work, the hope that by wading through a lot of dreck you’ll come to find something that makes you glad you put in the effort of looking. In 1991, Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica made a Hollywood film that seems to be so unlike what they normally produce that distributors Warner Brothers only gave it a very, very limited release in late 1994, hoping that it would come out and go away quickly. Just look at that tagline up there... they weren't even trying to understand it. Despite a European release the previous year, and a good showing on the festival circuit, its American gross was a little over $112,000. With that kind of story behind it, it’s got to be worth a look, right?
Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp) works in New York, tagging fish for the city’s Fish & Game department. He’s happy there, but his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo) brings him to Arizona for his uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis)’s wedding, though it’s partly a ruse to get Axel to take over Leo’s car dealership. On the lot, Axel meets two passionate, if rather unhinged women – Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and Grace (Lily Taylor). Axel gets involved with Elaine, while Grace wanders their house, playing her accordion to turtles and threatening suicide.
We’ve all had some pretty weird dreams in our lives, am I right? The kind of dreams that you wake up the next morning and, from the little you may remember about them, think to yourself, “what the hell was that all about?” I once had a dream where Charles Dickens got into fistfights with people in New York, just so he could draw a crowd and start discussing the city’s architecture… Dreams are a funny thing. And by dreams, I mean both the surreal visions that you have when you’re sleep and the ones you hope to achieve in your waking life. Early in the picture, Axel tells us in voiceover that the way to see someone’s soul is to look at their dreams… the fact that he spends his time looking into the dreams of fish, and similarly letting them look into his, makes little difference to him. He likes fish. As far as he’s concerned, fish are much smarter than people. That’s why he likes his job so much, and is loathe to leave it in order to travel back to Arizona, where he grew up, and be talked into taking over the Cadillac dealership his uncle owns. The only reason he winds up there is because his cousin gets him drunk until he passes out. When he comes to, the first thing he sees from the backseat of the car his cousin is driving is an automotive graveyard, the dusty Arizona roadside sporadically lined with old cars on stilts. Welcome home, Axel.
Johnny Depp plays Axel, a young guy who, since moving to the Big Apple, has rather forgotten what it is to be the kind of oddball that his hometown produces. He’s still kind of an oddball, but he’s become more subdued about it, less likely to drag other people into his particular brand of strangeness. Right from the moment we enter Arizona, we begin to meet people more accustomed to living according to their own dreams, regardless of how bizarre or difficult it makes them seem. When he finds himself back at his uncle’s home, back with the man he calls his “childhood hero”, he tries to fend off the old man’s request that he be the one to take his place as owner of a Cadillac dealership.
I’m going to stop now before I essentially recount the plot of the film, largely because it would remove from the absurd joy of watching it all unfold before you. I’ll let you look out the film for yourselves so you can see Johnny Depp’s numerous attempts to build the kind flying machines that Klunk would have come up with for Dastadly and Muttley. I’ll let you watch Vincent Gallo interrupt a screening of Raging Bull by climbing in front of the screen and acting the scene out for the audience whilst it plays on the screen behind him. I’ll let you ponder the fish from Johnny Depp’s dream at the movie’s opening that returns again and again for reasons fuzzy. You can enjoy the mariachi band; the failed bungee suicide; Johnny Depp’s chicken impression; the game of Russian Roulette; Gallo’s hilarious talent show entry; and the most awkward dinner to involve an escaped turtle, someone singing a song from The Wizard of Oz and the repeated use of “Papa New Guinea”. I’d say you’d understand more if you saw, but I’m not sure you would. I also don’t think you’ll care, cause it’s just so damn enjoyable to watch.
What writer David Atkins and director Emir Kusturica have created is a world where people so openly follow their dreams that, within the context of the film world, they can actually affect the reality around them. This can lead to moments that are actually quite touching, if rather absurd. The film itself is so richly layered with film references, from stuff like Nanook of the North to The Wizard of Oz to Terminator 2: Judgement Day to North by Northwest to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It really is a diverse palette. One of the recurring ideas of Arizona Dream is the influence of films on dreams and dreams on films. Paul’s whole life seems to be about pursuing a life in film, and part of achieving this is to live his life as close to a film as possible. He even recites lines from Raging Bull in his sleep. As Axel’s relationship with Elaine grows, he talks about running off to Alaska with her, attempting to live out his initial dream, which he refers to as his “movie dream”. Kusturica himself seems to draw some influences in his manner of direction. For example, the whole dinner scene is like watching some early Robert Altman, only with a more dynamic camera style. He has also scattered the film with hints of a lighter touch, subtle nods and visual metaphors that sit unobtrusively as things for people who care to look closer.
What helps to hold all of these scenes of absurd comedy together is that there is, beneath it all, a well-developed and drawn set of relationships at play. You don’t spend your time wondering why exactly these people know each other, or why they don’t just split from each other at the first opportunity. It’s virtually without structure, but at the same time, it doesn’t push things so far that stop caring about these people. You really do invest yourself in them, which is quite a thing to do when you’re watching Jerry Lewis and Johnny Depp talking about fish in an Inuit language.
The performances of the film are excellent, each and every one expertly jumping between the comic and tragic. Depp is able to pull a great trick of being both understated and somewhat intense; Lewis is on top form, rendering Leo as both disarmingly sweet and forceful, with a nod here and there to his better known goofy persona from his days with Dean Martin, and still without compromising the moments of pathos; Dunaway gives us a kind of firecracker in Elaine, though tempered with an insecurity that feels like it may cross the line into inconsistent (read as: schizophrenic), but never does; Gallo evokes a great caricature of manhood, both inspired by real-life and classic movies, and does a decent Joe Pesci/Robert De Niro double act on his own; and Lili Taylor is an absolute delight to watch in every single thing she does, and here she’s all half-smug glares and sneers and wry smirks… God, I love that girl.
Arizona Dream is an absolutely absurd, but utterly wonderful film. It’s often incredibly funny, run through with wit and slapstick, but it’s occasionally rather sombre, too. It may be a bit long for some (about two-and-a-half hours), but every performance is a treasure, the direction is superbly rich and it remains consistently interesting. This is one of those gems that people often forget or overlook or just plain never hear about. Do yourself a favour and look this one out.