We hear a lot about the American Dream, but it is only an illusion (as illustrated by Leo Sweetie, the character here who nominally has achieved it), and Americans (like all others) are left to negotiate reality with real dreams, the ones they have when they close their eyes and go to sleep. Emir Kusturíca’s almost entirely English-language Arizona Dream, which is almost entirely set in Arizona, is not the Sarajevo-born artist’s best film, but it is certainly his funniest (both slapstick and behavioral comedy abound), and it is, like all his best work, strangely and profoundly moving. Kusturíca, you may recall, twice won the Palme d’Or (for When Father Was Away on Business, 1985, and Underground, 1995) and best director at Cannes (for Time of the Gypsies, 1988). Arizona Dream won him a Silver Bear at Berlin. The story is by him and David Atkins, who wrote the script.
The protagonist dreams of Innuits in Alaska and of a ubiquitous flying fish. This is 23-year-old Axel Blackmar, adequately played by Johnny Depp, both of whose parents were killed in an automobile accident where Uncle Leo was the driver. Leo (Jerry Lewis, who is screamingly funny until a tactful, touching deathbed scene) is a Tucson Cadillac dealer whose “dream” is the haunting nightmare of the tragic accident. Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway, as usual painfully affected) has dreamt of flying since childhood, and Axel, who becomes her lover, wholeheartedly throws himself into building a flying machine for her so that she can realize her dream. Giving the best performance, Vincent Gallo plays Axel’s cousin Paul Leger, an aspiring actor whose dreams are waking ones: the movies, whose dialogue he can recite, playing all the parts, and who, in a brilliantly shot, acted and edited passage, “plays” Cary Grant in the crop-duster scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) as Elaine, airborne, tries to mow him down. (The flipping back and forth between Grant and Gallo devastates the funny bone.) Finally, Grace Stalker (Lili Taylor, dreamy), Elaine’s stepdaughter whose father, Grace knows, Elaine murdered, dreams of suicide. Her Russian roulette-duel with Axel, whom she loves, terrifies. Her mass release of pet turtles—with Kusturíca, always such love of animals!—is heartrending.
Some things deliberately don’t add up—as though “reality” were the dream: that Axel could have taken out an apparently older Paul on the latter’s twenty-first birthday; that Axel, Leo and Paul all have different family names. The U.S. is a nation of invention and reinvention, all a part of trying to escape reality and chase—or fly—after dreams.
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