Judge Chris Claro's Arizona dream featured a pig flying over Scottsdale.
"Love at first sight saves a lot of time."
Ah, whimsy. When applied with a lightness of touch, a gossamer gloss, it can make for breezily satisfying, effortless entertainment. But trowel it on with a heavy hand and whimsy is stultifying, airless, and often, cringe-inducing. Yes, the vessel of whimsy must be guided by a steady hand. Which way does director Emir Kusturica (When Father was Away on Business) go with Arizona Dream?
Facts of the Case
Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland) spends his days counting fish for the city of New York and living out of the back of his truck. When Axel goes to Arizona with his movie-fanatic friend, Paul (Vincent Gallo, The Brown Bunny), for the wedding of his whimsically named uncle, Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy), he finds himself the object of the affections of the mother and daughter Stalkers, Elaine (Faye Dunaway, Network), and Grace (Lili Taylor, Public Enemies). Throw in a Tejano quartet, a homemade flying machine, and reenactments of North by Northwest and The Godfather: Part II, and a light tone that is violated by the suicide of a character, and you have the disjointed montage that is Arizona Dream.
What to make of Kusturica's oddball confection? In attempting to decipher his intentions, I discovered a few facts that no doubt influenced the final product. According to IMDb, shooting had to "pause" for three months as Kusturica wrestled with a bout of depression. That could certainly have had something to do with the abrupt tonal shift toward the end of the film. In addition, Kusturica's initial cut of Arizona Dream was four hours long. Though IMDb lists the final running time as 142 minutes, the version that Warner Archive has released is 118. Such a disparity among lengths goes a long way toward accounting for the choppiness that makes Arizona Dream less a movie than a series of loosely related vignettes.
(More about the discrepancy in running times and the various release dates can be found in the accomplices section in Janet Maslin's 1995 New York Times review of what she refers to as the 1992 film but whose packaging lists it as 1991.)
It's too bad that Arizona Dream is such a scattershot mess of a movie because Kusturica and his cinematographer, Vilko Filac (Novocaine) create some beautiful compositions set against the Arizona desert. As this is a bare-bones Warner Archive release, extras are non-existent, which is a shame, considering how much excised footage must be lying around. It would have been fascinating to see one of Kusturica's longer cuts included on the DVD.
The widescreen transfer itself is grade-A, emphasizing the warmth of the pastels of the southwest. Audio is also acceptable, with a good balance between dialogue and the sweet soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite being a less than satisfying film, Arizona Dream is surprisingly well-acted. Falling between Edward Scissorhands and Benny and Joon, the film spotlights Johnny Depp's youthful charisma and gives him room to play off the broader performances of Dunaway and Gallo. Taylor's off-center beauty benefits her character, the only one whose motivation survived the presumed severe editing. Gallo is less intense here than we've come to expect and has some very funny moments, and it's nice to see legendary oddball Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde) in a cameo.
Special mention must be made of Jerry Lewis's brief but exceptional appearance in Arizona Dream. As every King of Comedy or Wiseguy fan knows, Lewis has the capacity for dramatic subtlety, and his work in Arizona Dream is a reminder of that. Watching Lewis deftly hold his own with Oscar-winner Dunaway recalls the electricity he generated with De Niro almost thirty years ago.
Arizona Dream is a curious misfire, worthy of the time only for the most ardent fans of Depp, Dunaway, or Lewis.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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