Johnny Depp and Emir Kusturica’s unsung film triumph about life and dreams

Captain Jack Sparrow has returned to movie screens and with him the actor who has brought him to life for five films now; Johnny Depp. At this point, playing Jack must be second nature to Depp, and while the film itself is a dog (barely acknowledging anything which made the first film fun), the actor himself is still a pleasure to watch.

Depp has made his name off playing characters such as Jack, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd; offbeat individuals the world doesn’t quite know what to do with. They have not only been his bread and butter all these years, but they have truly made him come to life as an artist. One such character which many no doubt gloss over (if they’ve heard of him at all) is that of Axel Blackmar, the man driven by strange dreams, in Emir Kusturica’s little-seen fantasy/comedy Arizona Dream.

Kusturica’s American film debut stars Depp as Axel, a young New York City employee haunted by the dream of an Eskimo and the large halibut he has captured. While he is more or less content with his life, he finds himself being brought back home to Arizona by aspiring actor Paul (Vincent Gallo) at the request of Axel’s hotshot Cadillac dealer uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis). Once there, Axel encounters the widowed Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and her step-daughter Grace (Lily Taylor) and soon finds himself instantly taken by the two high-strung, yet intoxicating women.

Arizona Dream proudly takes its place as a sterling piece of surrealist cinema. The film has a specific kind of flow that’s decidedly European but works in telling a true American story, in keeping with most surrealist offerings. One of the film’s best scenes features Elaine telling Axel of a dream she had when she was a little girl where she pictured herself flying and how she knew then and there that that sensation was all she wanted to feel for the rest of her life. As she tells this to Axel (who is captivated by the story), the table and chairs the two are sitting on begin to levitate off the ground to an appropriately dreamy score. In a way, the scene illustrates Arizona Dream’s core as a film. This is a movie where everyone in it is trying to find their place in the world; who they’re meant to be, as opposed to what life has turned them into. While Elaine wants to do nothing but fly, Leo desperately wants more than anything to be remembered once he’s gone. Meanwhile Paul longs to be anyone else but himself, hence his ambition to become an actor, and Grace is certain she will be reincarnated into a turtle. Only Axel remains a mystery, even to himself, as to where he belongs and what he wants from life or from himself, clinging instead to his dreams to give him purpose and meaning.

In an effort to not get totally lost on all the surrealist philosophy the film has to offer, Arizona Dream also proves itself to be a wonderfully absurdist comedy. The strongest example of the film’s level of humor can be found in the side-splitting dinner sequence where Elaine has invited Axel and Paul to dinner with her and Grace. After Elaine has lost her temper with her step-daughter, Grace asks the two guests to leave, proclaiming dinner to be over. When Elaine insists that they stay, a tug of war occurs between the two women as each grabs an end of the tablecloth with pasta, roast beef, wine and candles still on it. Axel and Paul watch mesmerized until Elaine lets go of her end, causing Grace to become even more enraged as she proclaims she is going to commit suicide. As Elaine loses her composure, a ceiling fan hits Paul, setting off his PTSD and causing him to babble nonsense. Meanwhile, with Axel on her tail, Grace strips off her pantyhose and charges up the stairs, making a homemade noose and hanging herself off of one of the banisters with everyone watching as she dangles like a yo-yo, sadly still alive.

For any actor, a film as left-of-center as Arizona Dream would make most performers soar with flying colors or crash and burn in the most spectacular of ways. Thankfully the former applies to every member of the cast. Each actor comes with their own unique acting style, from Dunaway’s method, to Lewis’s slapstick, to Taylor’s ethereal qualities. Despite the differences, each one manages to make their role his or her own while remaining perfectly in sync as a cast. Lewis works great with Depp, taking his iconic comedic energy into a different realm, while Taylor has rarely been more captivating or found a role better suited for her than Grace. She and Dunaway and as mother and daughter are a force of nature and so explosive to watch. Meanwhile Dunaway herself enjoys the best role the 90s ever gave her, playing a woman still chasing the magic she knew for a brief time as a child, and Gallo shows off a great comic flair. Finally, Depp is well-suited as a man trying to find the place in the world to belong, while trying to decipher the meaning behind it.

While Kusturica’s original cut of Arizona Dream ran for nearly four hours, the film was whittled down to its current two-hour cut. While the movie’s hacking is hard to ignore, it thankfully doesn’t take too much away from the proceedings. Most agreed as Arizona Dream became an international hit with critics and audiences overseas, enjoying a healthy European run. However the film suffered from a two-year delay in release in the states where (thanks to bad marketing) it failed to repeat the success it had experienced abroad. Yet the film has since enjoyed a second life as a sort of curio cult classic, available as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

Arizona Dream represents a sort of alternate weirdness to Depp’s trademark choosing of roles in that for once, Depp is the least weird aspect of a movie in which he’s starring. Kusturica’s film is largely directionless, yet the lingering effect it imparts on its audience does contain meaning and wisdom in all its outrageous hilarity. Arizona Dream, in a sense, is like a dream in and of itself with its fragmented nature, elevated reality and far out ideals. Ultimately though, the film is about the POWER of dreams, rather than the actual dreams themselves, and the mystifying ability to inspire and transport, which will always remain an intoxicating mystery.

Get it at Amazon:
Arizona Dream — [DVD] | [Amazon Video]

Previous post WONDER WOMAN Makes Her Big-Screen Debut in a Movie Quite Worthy of Her
Next post KINGDOM: Frank Grillo’s Hard-R, MMA-themed FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS