Arizona Dream – 1993 – dir. Emir Kusturica
“But what’s the point of breathing if somebody already tells you the difference between an apple and a bicycle? If I bite a bicycle and ride an apple, then I’ll know the difference.” That’s one of the first of many philosophical musings from Axel Blackmar, the searching twenty-something protagonist of Emir Kusturica’s willfully strange 1993 film Arizona Dream. It’s a statement that prepares the audience for all that comes next. That is, at least well as the audience can be prepared for all that comes next.
Arizona Dream is a funhouse of a movie – it tilts the floors out from under us with little warning and reflects a warped version of ourselves back us without apology, but it’s a coming of age story at its core. Axel, played by a fresh faced but already quite impressive Johnny Depp, navigates the funhouse through trial and error, seeing no other choice. (In the hands of most any other actor, Axel might have become insufferable and brooding rather than lost and sweet, but Depp gets it right.) Summarizing Arizona Dream’s messy, meandering plot isn’t easy, but it would certainly be true to the spirit of the film to say that it’s the story of Axel Blackmar biting bicycles and riding apples.
On more literal level, it’s the story of Axel being kidnapped from his home in New York City and pressed into serving as the Best Man at his uncle Leo’s wedding in Arizona. His stay becomes extended, and along the way he fumbles with building an adult life (Leo wants him to take over the family car dealership) and finding love (he winds up in a love triangle with a mother and daughter). But who wants to reduce the film to its dry plot summary? Arizona Dream fascinates because of its gloriously mad setpieces (a harrowing family dinner and a reenactment of the airplane scene from North by Northwest being the standouts for me) and funky details. Indeed, Roger Ebert’s insightful review of the film at times slips into a loving catalog its “wonderful sights”: “Ambulances to the moon. Unsuccessful suicide by bungee cord. Johnny Depp. A dog saving a man from death in the Arctic. Faye Dunaway. Turtles crawling through meatballs. Jerry Lewis. A man who counts fish. Paulina Porizkova. Airplanes that look like they were borrowed from Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Michael J. Pollard.” Ebert surmises, and I think rightly so, that such sights might not be for everyone: “The movie is completely batty, and better suited probably to a giggly 1960s audience than to today’s grim seekers after cinematic value for money.”
To embrace the film is to embrace how utterly bizarre it is, and to appreciate the fact that Kusturica is willing to take chances with the material, finding how to express himself even if it means biting a few bicycles. He obviously hasn’t made a realist film, but rather one that uses over the top imagery and characterization to capture how confusing and exasperating family, love, and life can be, particularly for the young. The film is constantly threatening to be much too much for its audience, but perversely, that’s a part of its oddball appeal. Kusturica’s approach may not work for everyone, but Arizona Dream has a good chance of working its way into the hearts of those who care to seek it out.
This could prove particularly true for fans of Johnny Depp. Despite being less well-known than other early Depp films like Cry Baby and Edward Scissorhands, Arizona Dream serves as a signpost for Depp’s delightfully offbeat path as an actor. With its flying, dreaming fish and a musical score that includes both accordion music and eerie spoken word performances by Iggy Pop, Arizona Dream not only shows off Depp’s talents, but also his inherent sympathy for misfits, the attraction to strangeness that would do much to define his career. In some ways, Arizona Dream is as much about Depp finding his way as it is about Axel finding his. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Barbara Shulgasser picked up on the rising star’s tremendous potential when she reviewed the film in 1995, writing that, “Aside from avuncular Lewis and two-bricks-shy-of-a-load Dunaway, this movie’s greatest asset is Depp. With his scooped-out cheeks, flower petal mouth and an innately balletic approach to communicating with the camera, he is as natural a performer as film has seen in many years.” It’s the good fortune of moviegoers that such a natural performer has shown a consistent attraction to risky, interesting material like Arizona Dream.
True to its title, Kusturica’s film begins and ends with dreams, and concerns itself with them throughout. It also ultimately plays like one. With its haunting visual and verbal non-sequiturs and occasional bits of dream logic, it perhaps makes more emotional than literal sense. But there are dreamers among us who get it, and love it for it idiosyncrasies.