DIRECTED BY: Emir Kusturica
PLOT: Axel is a fish-tagger who reluctantly moves to Arizona to help his uncle run a car
dealership; there, he becomes romantically entangled with an emotionally unstable older woman and her suicidal stepdaughter.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The fish swimming through the desert past a Saguaro cactus and darting in and out of a Cadillac window certainly helps. With intrusions of magical realism and pretentious pseudo-philosophizing by a cast of fish-counting dreamers, madwomen who dream of flying, suicidal turtle-loving accordion players and the comic tics of Jerry Lewis, Arizona Dream plays out like a European attempt to make a Coen brothers comedy. It’s quirkiness magnified to a metaphysical level. Considered scene-by-scene, the movie’s almost always interesting and funny, but it doesn’t stick together to create a satisfying vision, and its weirdness isn’t thorough enough to justify the lack of coherence. It just misses making the List on the first ballot. Mr. Kusturica need not sweat, however; even if Arizona Dream is ultimately denied admission to the Halls of Weirdness, he has plenty of other contenders on his resumé (Time of the Gypsies, Black Cat White Cat, and Underground) and he’s unlikely to be left out in the cold.
COMMENTS:I don’t want to completely false impression that Arizona Dream is a bad movie, but, given its considerable assets—a peak cast sinking their fangs into crazy characters, a visionary director, and some humdinger scenes—it’s fair to start out a review by defining what holds it back from being a great movie. Arizona Dream is a movie that’s obviously eager to say something profound about the human condition, but has trouble spitting it out. Instead, we get a parade of aphorisms that progress from “People think that fish are stupid, but I was always sure that they weren’t because they know when to be quiet and its people that are stupid, and fish that know everything and don’t need to think” to “even though I no longer felt like a fish, and realized I knew nothing, I was happy to be alive.” There’s lots of talk about dreams and reincarnation and references to Christopher Columbus that don’t add up to anything meaningful or comprehensible; it would have been more tolerable if the scriptwriter David Atkins had left the slacker poetry and indie-film philosophizing to the side and simply embraced the randomness and irrationality of the mad, meandering story. This comic movie also features a tragic ending, but it’s arbitrary, a pulling of the narrative rug out from under the audience, so despite the fact that we care about the characters, its main impact is to create a slight feeling of resentment. If we’re to take home any sort of vision of life from the movie, its not to be found in Johnny Depp’s monologues but in an image: the floating figure, sometimes a balloon and sometimes a fish, that wanders from dreams to reality, from Alaska to New York to Arizona, pulled along by an unthinking current and going wherever it leads.
But even if Arizona Dream winds up nowhere in particular, the journey’s still worth taking because of the delightful scenery along the way. The top-flight ensemble cast keeps the film always on the edge of being mesmerizing, even through the mighty two and a half hour running time. For a change, Johnny Depp isn’t the center of attention, but the center of sanity (despite impersonating a rooster at one point for no clear reason). He’s nearly a passive character, but the craziness of the others gives him plenty to react to, and he responds to the provocations of the two women with proper fuming passion. At 52 (!) Faye Dunaway displays significant sexiness (in contemporary parlance she might be called a “cougar“) and even more craziness; she comically quivers on the verge of tears for about half the movie. Her mood swings suggest a woman who’s either going through menopause or forgetting to take her medication. She dreams of flying, and Depp wins her heart by building a sequence of homemade flying machines straight out of silent newsreel footage. Batty as Faye is, she’s got nothing on stepdaughter Lili Taylor, who longs to be reincarnated as a turtle, considers Russian Roulette a form of foreplay, and whose jealousy towards her stepmom drives her to wander around the two womens’ house chain-smoking and playing an accordion. Vincent Gallo, as Depp’s buddy, a perpetually auditioning would-be actor and ladies’ man, plays a fourth wheel to the romantic triangle, but steals several scenes with his re-enactments of famous roles by Cary Grant, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and others. Throw in Jerry Lewis as a used car salesman with a tiny bit of the Nutty Professor popping into his performance like an uncontrollable spastic tic, and wackiness is inevitable.
With actors at the peak of their games and a script that’s tight in its details even when it fails in the big picture, its inevitable that several standout scenes emerge. Depp shares a couple of big, passionate comic/dramatic blowouts with both Dunaway and Taylor. If you’re not intrigued to see how a showdown between unlikely antagonists Faye Dunaway and Jerry Lewis plays out, then you’re probably not a movie lover. Vincent Gallo’s running North by Northwest gag provides a couple of the film’s most memorable moments. But the worth-the-price-of-admission scene comes at a mad dinner party that progresses from awkward flirtations and turtles on the table to a botched suicide attempt with freakishly elastic pantyhose while a dazed Gallo goes Bert Lahr, suddenly believing he’s the Cowardly Lion. It’s what they call in the business “inspired lunacy”; Kusturica winds up his lunatics and sets them hopping about the asylum at the same time. If only he’d found a story device to put Jerry Lewis in buck teeth and set him loose on the scene, running around and squinting his eyes and yelling “hey laady!,” he would have created the perfect modern slapstick sequence.
Arizona Dream wins hearts through its performances, its deadpan tone and scenes like the dinner party. As an episodic quirky comedy, it works wonders, but when it comes time to wrap things up it reveals a missing dimension: this movie doesn’t have anything to say, but is intent on saying it anyway. It’s not content to settle for being simply and proudly absurd but feels the compulsion to add a layer of profundity. The story is wrapped up in a dream of an Eskimo who finds a flat fish with eyes on one side of its face and a balloon inside, but this vision doesn’t relate to the main story thematically or even emotionally, much less logically; whatever symbolism there is remains obscure, but without being fascinating. For most of its running time, the movie could be any old indie comedy about eccentric characters falling in and out of love without a care for square society’s conventions. Very occasionally, the character’s behavior passes the bounds of the flaky and heads towards the impossible. Unreality intrudes in the form of fish floating through the landscape, to remind us of the film’s dream aspirations, but the technique neither fails nor feels integrated into the film’s fabric. The movie balances on a seesaw of realism and surrealism but can’t commit to sit on one side or the other. Either more, or less, coherence might have helped tip Arizona Dream from the “interesting” into the “classic” column.
This was Emir Kusturica’s only American film, although he has recently begun working in the US again (at the time of this writing he is listed as director for four titles in development or pre-production, including a biography of Pancho Villa starring Depp). For some reason Warner Brothers threw gobs of money at a Yugoslavian director known for his political, surrealist art films, then was surprised when the result wasn’t a standard romantic comedy. They sat on the property, not releasing it in the US until 1995, after a successful European run, and cut the 140 minute film by twenty minutes for TV and VHS releases. Kusturica and Hollywood did not make a good match, as both parties would surely agree. Roger Ebert put it best when he described Arizona Dream as “one of those movies that slips through the cracks,” adding “Hollywood bureaucracy has been established precisely to prevent films like this from being made.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What works best for ‘Arizona Dream’ is that its lunacy is so liberating. Mr. Kusturica often favors a broad, rowdy mess over anything more structured, but he can galvanize his actors in captivatingly weird ways.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (rerelease)
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Me,” who called it “the weirdest movie ever!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)