The only film by the absurdist Serbian director Emir Kusturica to feature an American setting, writer (David Atkins), and cast, Arizona Dream is a wiggy whatzis of variably engaging loopiness but lingering, mystical darkness about the shadows cast by mortality over reveries and aspirations. Stalling as often as it takes off, it’s anchored by an ambitious lead performance by Johnny Depp, still dewy but game for anything at the tail-end of his ingénue period. Perhaps spurred by the cast of grade-A hams, the usually low-key young star sustains manic bursts in two-handed scenes with his co-stars: bouncing off the walls in carnal abandon with Faye Dunaway, echoing the playful gibberish of Jerry Lewis, matching young Vincent Gallo in rapid-fire, improvisatory bullshit.
Depp’s Axel Blackmar, a New York fish-counter for the wildlife department who insists, in Beat-like narration, that he “looks in the souls” of the creatures he tags and releases, is dragged back to his native Arizona by a boyhood friend (Gallo) for the wedding of Uncle Leo (Lewis), a Cadillac dealer with heart problems and a fiancée 40 years his junior. Soon after taking a trial job in the car lot at Leo’s insistence, Axel takes up with a nutty middle-aged widow (Dunaway) so obsessed with lifelong dreams of flying that she encourages her young lover to build a Wright brothers-era aircraft on the sun-parched grounds of her mansion, shared with a neurotic, suicidal stepdaughter (a magnetic Lili Taylor) who talks to turtles. Kusturica legitimizes the casting of scenery chewers by establishing that dreams and melodrama are their characters’ lifeblood: Lewis envisions climbing to the moon on a stack of Caddys; Gallo compulsively recites movie dialogue of the Cowardly Lion and Fredo Corleone, and in a memorable comic interlude, “interprets” Cary Grant’s North by Northwest crop-duster chase on a tiny talent show stage; and accordion-playing Taylor seduces Depp with nothing less histrionic than a game of Russian roulette.
A few years after the film was shot in 1991, and Warner Bros. delayed its U.S. release, Kusturica made Underground, his tragicomic epic of the final decades of Yugoslavian history. Arizona Dream then received a brief art-house run in the same 142-minute version seen in Europe, so it’s frustrating that this truncated cut is still the only one on the U.S. video market. The longer edit is richer and more immersive, if you can find it, but at any length it’s a challenging, eccentric picaresque of flying fish, Eskimo visions, and what Gallo’s autodidactic actor calls “deadly male protein.” Recalling the ‘70s shaggy-dog stories of Makavejev, Ashby, and Schatzberg, Kusturica’s French-financed American venture deserved better than the neglect it suffered in the blockbuster age.
Cinematographer Vilko Filac's sunlit Southwestern desertscapes look better than expected in a transfer that hasn't been restored or buffed up; some soft edges and dirt are barely noticeable. Goran Bregovic's choral-heavy score dominates the serviceable stereo track, while occasionally muffled dialogue might be chalked up to what the British reference book Halliwell's Film Guide used to term "indifferent recording."
Someday this fascinating curio by a major European filmmaker will get its full due; this disc doesn't make the attempt.