The Johnny Depp Archive

Arizona Dream (1993)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, Vincent Gallo, Lili Taylor

Directed by: Emir Kusturica

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

The fabulous Johnny Depp as Axel Blackmar in Arizona Dream

You don't expect a film titled Arizona Dream to begin with Eskimos in Alaska. But then Emir Kusturica's strange, quirky tragi-comedy never quite conforms to conventional expectations.

The unlikely story begins in New York, where we meet Axel Blackmar (Johnny), a fish watcher (yes, really) in the Hudson Bay. 'Look into the eyes of a fish and you'll see your soul,' Axel tells us, in one of many earnestly delivered, clichéd voiceovers. Yuh. Yet in the same speech, he also tells us that 'daydreaming is a long way from life's truths', and this quote holds the key to this surreal, dreamlike movie.

Like all young people, Axel wants to live life by his own rules and follow his own dreams, and the last thing he wants is to end up like his uncle and childhood hero Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis), a brash, almost sinister car salesman from, yup, Arizona. Leo dreams of his nephew taking over his business, and for a few days his dream comes true, as Axel is kidnapped from New York by his old friend Paul (Vincent Gallo, looking startlingly like Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line), a wannabe actor who dreams of stardom but has gotta be kidding.

And it's on the forecourt of his uncle's sales lot, trussed up in dicky bow, hair shaped round a pudding bowl, that he meets freaky mother and stepdaughter combo Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and Grace (Lili Taylor). At first this appears to be a classic Ab Fab role reversal situation, as plain daughter attempts to rein in glamorous mother's OTT kookiness. But it quickly becomes apparent that prickly heiress Grace is every bit as crazy as her extravagantly melodramatic stepmother, if not more so.

Those magnificent actors in their flying machine: Faye Dunaway and Johnny Depp take to the skies in Arizona Dream

One would have thought that after the painfully uncomfortable yet hilarious dinner Axel attends at the odd couple's home, which ends with a horribly comic suicide attempt on Grace's part, he'd run a mile from this beautiful, man-eating woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and her utterly infuriating and deeply disturbed, accordion-wielding maniac of a stepdaughter. But no, instead he's smitten, and sets about trying to make things right for the two dysfunctional women.

Like Gilbert Grape, Axel is a good man who wants to do the right thing, but is surrounded by nutters who make it very difficult for him to do so. But unlike Gilbert, Axel is not able to keep his feet so firmly on the ground - literally. See, Axel may suffer from a serious bout of youthful idealism, but his dreaminess is no match for his older lover's deliberate reality dodging. Soon he finds himself drawn into Elaine's dream: making a flying machine, Caractacus Potts style. The machine he finally makes, however, becomes a symbol for their relationship: obsessive, momentarily magical and exhilarating, but ultimately destined to crash and burn.

Johnny Depp, Vincent Gallo, Lili Taylor and Faye Dunawaye in Arizona Dream

Fraught, fantastical and just a bit freaky, Arizona Dream is sometimes a bit too challenging and complex for its own good, bogged down by Axel's solemn, cliché ridden voiceover and overloaded with symbols that don't really mean anything. And, at over two hours, it's also a bit too long. Yet it's fresh, funny and honest enough to keep us engaged, and provides us with an object lesson in the dangers of daydreaming and having too much time on your hands. Oh, and it features some great performances: Faye Dunawaye is magnificent, Vincent Gallo delightfully energetic and amusing (his North By North West turn is genius) and Johnny, of course, is marvellous - sharp, funny and cute as a button - as the bewildered Axel.

Like Axel, I was left slightly baffled by this cinematic dream that occasionally strays into nightmare territory, but was definitely glad I'd had the experience. Although I'm still not sure what the Eskimos have to do with anything. Oh, they're all just a dream.

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