Arizona Dream (1993) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, violence and language
Running Time: 120 min. (142 min. European)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Vincent Gallo, Paulina Porizkova, Michael J. Pollard
Director: Emir Kusturica
Screenplay: David Atkins
Review published June 17, 2004
It's a cult film for some, and perhaps repeat viewing might warm me up to it more, but for now, my first time sitting through Arizona Dream, my feelings lean toward the negative side. That shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose, as it is the kind of movie that takes at least a half hour to draw you in enough, then another to begin comprehending what you've been watching for the last hour, and once you realize that the film isn't going to make a great deal of sense, you either ditch it or stick with it and enjoy the trippy ride.
Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean, Sleepy Hollow) plays Axel, a New York fisherman who travels out to Arizona to attend his uncle Leo's (Jerry Lewis) wedding. While there, Leo puts on the screws to try to get Axel to take over the used Cadillac dealership, but the wayward lad wants no part of it. Meanwhile, Axel and best buddy Paul (Vincent Gallo) make close friends with Grace (Lili Taylor, The Haunting) and her loopy mother, Elaine (Dunaway, Network). Axel finds a soft spot for the much older Elaine, which causes some conflict among the rest of both families, but he is determined to see the relationship through, including indulging her obsession with creating a flying machine that will take her to Papua New Guinea.
I'm of two minds regarding Arizona Dream, because I really did enjoy certain moments here and there, as well as the terrific performances by all of the cast (especially Faye Dunaway, who is outstanding). The script by first-time screenwriter David Atkins (Novocaine) is very original, and on many occasions, surprisingly intelligent and funny enough to impress. The spoof of the crop-duster scene in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest is perhaps the most engaging aspect of the production, and Gallo handles the physicality of the performance brilliantly. The atmosphere is decidedly surreal, but it makes an odd kind of sense at times, such that even when you aren't sure what is going on, you still kinda do.
Now, the down side. There are two things about Arizona Dream that I disliked, and quite strongly at that. The primary aspect comes from the hit-and-miss direction of Emir Kusturica, Yugoslavian (now Bosnian) born and working in an all English production for the first time. It's a bit jerky at times, not colorful in some parts, too much in others. In short, it's a mess. It doesn't help that Dream also features one of my least favorite scores for a film in recent memory, by Kusturica's Bosnian compatriot, Goran Bregovic. It's electronic cheese, and not particularly inspiring, and could have used more whimsy and depth in a story this ambitious.
My rating of 2.5 stars shows how split I am in my feelings toward this movie, and I suspect that if you were to poll 100 people just having viewed this film for the first time, you'd have just as many give it one star as they do five. You'll either love it for all of its eccentricities or you'll shut it off in disgust, but there's no question that it is decidedly different, and as brilliant as it is ridiculous. Self-indulgent? Yes. Original? Most definitely. However, as much as I wanted to love it, the inanity of it is just too overwhelming. Recommended for the 5% of the world population who enjoy anything and everything as quirky as possible. For the rest, it's just an incomprehensible bore that will most likely put you to a deep enough sleep to have a few dreams of your own.
©2004 Vince Leo