Nearly 20 years before the overhyped Inception focused on the phenomenon of dreams, Emir Kusturica directed Johnny Depp in the surrealistic comic fantasy Arizona Dream. The film was produced by Claudie Ossard (Delicatessen / Amélie) and is typical of the type of strange art films that Depp used to appear in before finding the mainstream appeal as a Disney Pirate.
The plot, like that, follows the dream-like escapades of Axel Blackmar (Depp), a drifter who has taken the unclear job of labeling fish for the New York State Department of Fish and Game. His cousin wannabe actor Paul Leger (Vincent Gallo) shows up and announces that their uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) plans to marry his Polish fiancé Millie (supermodel Paulina Porizkova) with a girl more than half his age and that he wishes to Axel should be his best man; reluctantly, Axel follows Paul back to their hometown of Arizona.
In his best role since playing a version of himself in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis is outstanding as Axel’s uncle Leo; a successful, infectious optimistic Cadillac salesman and vivid testimony of the “American Dream” which, paradoxically, is surrounded by the survivor’s guilt of causing the crash that killed Axel’s parents. He persuades him to keep going after the wedding and try to sell cars.
Axel’s first potential customers are the eccentric widow Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal stepdaughter Grace (Lili Taylor). Their brave arrival sparks the interest of both Axel and cousin Paul, as the gift of the father ensures an invitation to dinner at Stalker’s home that evening; here, scriptwriter David Watkins (Novocaine) delivers one of the most pleasingly funny surprise scenes I’ve seen and from here and into where I was completely hooked.
Axel starts an affair with Elaine and despite their crazy behavior and narrow grasp of the reality from May to September, the romance is compelling and really moving to watch, especially his attempt to build the airplane she has always dreamed of. The film’s theme of the pursuit of dreams before reality is carefully explored; Uncle Leo dreams of stacking Cadillacs high enough to reach the moon, Grace dreams of being reincarnated as a turtle and Paul strives to become a great actor by reprising his favorite movie scenes and providing one of the bizarre sets when he regains his entire crop of dusts sequence from the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest for a local talent show.
Kusturica is clearly a master filmmaker and he manages to maintain a dreamlike feel throughout the film’s 142 minutes of running time, it is consistently fun but also has a ghostly mysterious quality that makes the compelling show and fortunately the French Blu-ray version contains a DTS-HD 5.1 English audio master tracks with enforced subtitles only for the excerpts from Raging Bull and The Godfather: Part II, the whole picture quality of 1080p is wonderful and 20 minutes cut from that theatrical version has been fully restored.