Arizona Dream May 12, 2017
Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993) is as hot and bothered as the state in which it’s set and is as meandering and nonsensical as the titular dream it’s supposedly having. Which means it’s sometimes a surrealistic lark and sometimes a dreadful bore, never a combination of the two.
It stars Johnny Depp, baby-faced and reserved, as Axel Blackmar, a naïve 20-something fish counter traveling from New York to Arizona to attend his uncle Leo’s (Jerry Lewis) wedding. Though he plans on staying only for a couple days – he likes the mindless nature of his makeshift occupation – Axel ends up being persuaded both by his uncle and his eccentric cousin (Vincent Gallo) to stay in the area and sell cars at Leo’s dealership.
His first day on the job proves to be a fateful one, though. Only moments into his spiel does he encounter Elaine and Grace Stalker (Faye Dunaway and Lili Taylor), a batshit mother/daughter duo who seem to exist on a different planet wherein Grey Gardens (1975) is a visual manual on how to interact with other members of the human population.
Unabashedly bizarre, Elaine furiously talks of dreams of building a flying machine one day, while Grace, who loudly announces how much she despises her mother on a regular basis, fantasizes about killing herself and being reincarnated as a turtle.
Most in Axel’s situation would be thoroughly turned off by the obvious dysfunctionality resting between the women. And yet he finds himself drawn in, and in no time has he essentially moved into their secluded desert home, first pursuing a romantic relationship with Elaine only to slowly start finding himself slightly more drawn to the more age-appropriate Grace.
But the unconventional romantic imbroglios, arguably the most conventional aspects of the staunchy outlandish Arizona Dream, hardly seem to matter overarchingly. Lasting for a lackadaisical two-and-a-half hours, the film is more an exploration of the motivations of its characters, and why they, all cartoonishly strange, live the way they do and why they make the decisions they make. It’s a character study revolving around the people who refuse to conform to the expectations of the everyman, for better or for worse.
A lot of the time, it’s for worse. The movie is so long-winded that sometimes its manic energy feels stretched, forced even. But more often is it something to admire. Kusturica has taken the ingredients of quiet Americana and laced them with his idiosyncrasies and the capabilities of his actors, all of whom he pushes to deliver performances as humanistic as they are acutely madcap. Comedic situations are effectively executed, frequently effortlessly funny, and absurdity is so regularly offhanded that there are moments when the tone doesn’t seem like a deliberate stylistic choice but rather a recreation of the everyday.
Arizona Dream, of course, isn’t a recreation of the everyday. But it’s intriguing in that it’s able to convey generally loopy material and still showcase its naturalist core. Shave 20 minutes off and it could be some sort of mini-masterpiece. But since that isn’t an option, calling it unprecedented is the best compliment I can throw in its direction. B