The coming-of-age story at the heart of Dreamland is certainly familiar—of a financially struggling, romantically frustrated young piano player from Los Angeles who gets a taste of the amoral, unsavory world of the swinging upper class. Also certain is that the story’s clichés might have seemed fresh if the film was torn from the filmmaker’s own bitter personal experiences. But co-writer/producer/director/composer Robert Schwartzman’s debut feature feels informed less by life than by other films before it, as well as by a taste for quirk that seems more Sundance-approved than anything else.
The sense of a film school student doing movie karaoke with his influences is evident throughout Dreamland. Schwartzman’s own synthesizer-heavy score is the latest in a long line of recent films, among them Drive and Mistress America, to evoke 1980s nostalgia on their soundtracks for seemingly no reason. Nicolas Winding Refn’s fondness for neon reds is also evident in the film’s night exteriors—eye-catching in a wholly empty way. Such formal homages are marvels of subtlety, though, compared to the more blatant shout-outs: a repeated montage of a character’s morning routine that plays like a slowed-down riff on Joe Gideon’s bathroom rituals in All That Jazz; a seduction scene that rips off The Piano in one shot and The Fabulous Baker Boys in the next; a slow zoom into two characters sprawled on a floor in a post-coital embrace that recalls a shot of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.
Dreamland’s most obvious influence, though, is The Graduate. Naïve Monty Fagan (Johnny Simmons), who’s already carrying on a troubled relationship with his girlfriend, Lizzie (Frankie Shaw), gets involved with the older Olivia (Amy Landecker), a Mrs. Robinson type who’s disenchanted with married life and happily exercises her sexual prerogatives. Not only has Schwartzman absorbed the May-December romance plot of Mike Nichols’s film, but also its view of the middle- and upper-class Los Angeles denizens who surround Monty like a zoo of eccentrics. Worse than the bank-loan officer (Jason Schwartzman) who, among other supposedly charming idiosyncrasies, has energy bars shipped to his office in FedEx packaging, is Lizzie’s mother (Beverly D’Angelo), a shrieking harridan usually seen in unflattering makeup and wigs, and who at one point inexplicably tries to take her own sexual pass at Monty after showing him little to no respect beforehand.
The screenplay’s demeaning female characterizations confirm that Dreamland is narcissistic male fantasy through and through, with any sympathy Schwartzman might have engendered for his main character negated by the way the women seem to exist solely to motivate Monty’s actions. One could conceivably see the behaviors of the film’s women in a feminist light, given that Olivia and Lizzie are strong enough to go after what they want, at least until they’re all essentially punished for their actions: Olivia remains stuck in an unhappy marriage after Monty walks away from their casual arrangement and Lizzie tries to make amends after she realizes she was wrong to cheat on him with a hot plumber. In the end, it turns out that Dreamland’s view of the world is as retrograde as its screamingly derivative sense of homage.