Whatever its title or version, Emir Kusturica’s commonly called 1993 feature Arizona Dream is in fitting with its many titles and Kusturica’s many motifs, arguably his funniest and best acted film, Arizona Dream will be his only American film and maybe the last great work of Jerry Lewis and the only of Vincent Gallo. With many non-sequential, Arizona Dream thoughtfully works over its 140 minute running time, which is the edited-length of all of Kusturica’s films since 1984, the year he won his first Palme D’or, his 2nd was his last great film Underground in 1995, since when the minor obnoxious of his first five films spilled over into his indulgent, maudlin last three features, about family…
The family here, being Axel’s (Johnny Depp), who narrates throughout his journey, the opening credit sequence an inkling to his dream state. Another dreamer, wannabe-actor-brother Paul (Vincent Gallo) is in New York City to get Axel back to their hometown in Arizona where his uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) is marrying a woman Axel’s age. Leo wants Axel to take up the family car dealership, Axel doesn’t want think much of tradition, for time being however he assists Leo and Paul.
On the first day the three are on the lot, Elaine (Faye Dunaway) & her stepdaughter Grace (Lila Taylor) come bickering for a convertible, whilst Paul chit-chatters with Elaine, Grace gives Axel a tale of Elaine and why she makes her want to kill herself, much like Axel she definitely doesn’t want to grow up as her guardian, dreaming of being reincarnated as a turtle. We travel with Paul and Axel out to the woman’s house, the centre for the story, where Grace pets turtles and Elaine scraps materials for a home-made flying machine, Axel believes he has found first love here, but with which women?
Depp is present in every scene, he’s playing himself more than ever, Depp is most entertaining with his characters innocence and physically, much like his performance in Benny & Joon the same year as a Chaplin-Keaton impersonator, a mildly satisfying film in a narrow way, he also did Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which he is rather bland in, that being down to Lasse Hallstrom’s again weak juggling of drama and comedy. Many genres and feelings are blended here, visually so, so that nothing feels out of place, sufficing the running time.
The mystical introduction to the Arizona town remains one of the tacky suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, every character is introduced in two shots, wide shots help us enjoy the sight-seeing like we’re one of these American dreamers. The wackiness-mark is the dinner scene forty minutes in which set the suicidal nature of the story, some may question the believability, only one character has died in all six of the Kusturica films I’ve seen, it’s a question of do you the audience wish that outcome for them. Axel makes many existential claims, that may or may not resonant, whether they should…
Emir usually co-writes his material, a first mind-snap may have lead to David Atkins writing the whole screenplay from Emir’s story, his dialogue here is the best offering for any Emir screenplay, all the actors are on form, Gallo is charismatic and given one scene where he improvisationally breaks the fourth wall, also acting out scenes from films by directors he himself has worked with. Lila Taylor is a full package, maybe her greatest character at of the end of great run of films between 1989-1994. Faye Dunaway and Jerry Lewis are great in delivery and physically, Lewis keeps some geriatrics that make his fleeting appearances great, Dunaway is no Anne Bancroft but her character is written better than Mrs Robinson.
Goran Bregovic is like the wacho Serbian version of Jon Brion, his score here uses repetitive beats with slight tints to give freshness to his most distinct, poetic score, the sound design is again amazing to sway with and to. A great Kusturica advantage is the location and shooting, the background is a passing delight, most of the absurdities move to the camera, which is fine given that Vilko Filac’s cinematography is an excellent use of angles, POV, long takes and close-ups accompanied to Bregovic and more wickedly to some Iggy Pop compositions played wall-to-wall Scorsese style.
A four hour rough cut is in Deep’s possession, the DVD I saw however gives you a eleven minute tracking shot as a deleted scene which is one example of many ideas that work cinematically but not linearly. Much like Terry Gilliam, Emir’s nervous breakdowns have affected the quantity and quality of his work for the last fifteen years, the less abstract Tim Burton has continued on with a filmography that now stands up with the modern surrealist auteur.
Continuing his five film run of major awards, Arizona Dream won Kusturica the 1993 Venice Silver Bear that has to be questioned is its release, he’s films are similar to Fellini’s, who’s La Dolca Vita was the biggest foreign film success in the US prior to the 90’s, anyway the film harps back to the great surrealism of the early 60’s and is far more accomplished then some of most of the ridiculous works of its nature in the late 60’s, Arizona Dream is the most overlooked Johnny Depp film, and for me Kusturica’s best film, which are usually about ‘life’, this being the one most full of charm and liveliness, do I want to see a three hour plus version? Unlike his other films, maybe…
Darcy S. McCallum