Arizona Dream (1992): Kusturica Directs Surreal Film Starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway

The bizarre, offbeat, whimsical Arizona Dream is the first English-speaking film from the gifted Bosnian-born director Emir Kusturica.

rizona Dream
Arizona Dream

A two-time winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for “When Father Was Away on Business” in 1985, and “Underground” in 1995, Kusturica had also helmed the interesting feature, “Time of the Gypsies.”

A surreal fantasy, Arizona Dream in an unconventional film (to say the least), marked by a dreamy texture and non-linear story (it really has no plot). Independently financed and produced, the movie received its world premiere at the 1993 Toronto Film Fest, but, to the best of my knowledge, it has never received a legit theatrical distribution.

Boasting yet another eccentric performance from the vastly talented and original Johnny Depp, in the same year that he made his mark in Lasse Hallstrom’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes” (a movie that put Leonardo DiCaprio on the map), “Arizona Dream” has developed a small cult following over the past 18 tears. It’s therefore a pleasure to announce that Warner Archive is now releasing a new DVD version. (There are differences between the American and European version, which is longer and even more risque).

Depp plays Axel, a young man working for the Department of Fish and Game, tagging fish in New York harbor while expressing in voice-over narration his philosophy about the honesty of fish versus human beings, and the importance of having dreams.

Things change dramatically when Axel’s cousin Paul (the very young Vincent Gallo) is sent by Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis, yes Jerry Lewis the comedian), a rich car dealer and entrepreneur living in Arizona. Axel is under pressure to come home for Leo’s wedding to Millie (Paulina Porizkova), a hysterical woman (she cries a lot, and for no apparent reason) who, age-wise, could be his daughter, not to mention the fact that the couple has nothing in common.

Upon arrival, Axel meets and befriends two women, sort of a mother and daughter team, to be precise. The daughter is a suicidal copper heiress named Grace (Lili Taylor), who always takes and plays her musical instrument (an accordion) with her.  In contrast, her stepmother Elaine (Faye Dunaway) is a flirtatious middle-aged woman who has not accepted her age, still flaunting healthy libido.

Axel becomes romantically involved with Elaine, who could be his mother in age, and the two spend time trying to up in flying machines, which Axel had built for her and which, for some reason, keep getting destroyed.  Prime suspect is the troubled Grace, who among many hobbies, is enamored of turtles of all shapes and sizes. But there is also the possibility that the machines are destroyed by another person.

Like all of Kusturica’s pictures, “Arizona Dream” is defined by surreal images and long, dream-like montages, which have little to do with the narrative per se.  As noted, there is no plot to speak off—nothing really happens—and the dialogue is quirky and does not exactly follow any dramatic logic or psychological motivation. Thus, the richly detailed set design and mesmerizing visuals compensate for the various narrative shortcomings, accounting to a truly bizarre and wild cinematic experience.  The tone of the movie, like that of most of Kusturica’s works, veers smoothly between the satirical and the parodic.

Quite impressively, all the actors rise to the occasion.  Jerry Lewis seems uncomfortable (he may be miscast), but the film belongs to the young and handsome Depp; when he is on screen, he is riveting and you can’t take your eyes off him. For a change, Dunaway gives a strong, captivating performance, which is in line with the movie and doesn’t call too much attention to herself.  Lili Taylor, soon to become one of the queens of American Independent Cinema, shows her chameleon quality, with ability to transform herself physically and mentally.


Directed by Emir Kusturica

Produced by Claudie Ossard, Yves Marmion
Screenplay by David Atkins; Story by Emir Kusturica, David Atkins
Music by Goran Bregović
Cinematography Vilko Filač
Edited by Andrija Zafranović

Production company: Constellation U.G.C., Hachette Premiere

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: January 6, 1993 (France); September 9, 1994 (US)

Running time: 142 minutes

Johnny Depp as Axel Blackmar
Jerry Lewis as Leo Sweetie
Faye Dunaway as Elaine Stalker
Lili Taylor as Grace Stalker
Vincent Gallo as Paul Leger
Paulina Porizkova as Millie
Michael J. Pollard as Fabian
Candyce Mason as Blanche
Alexia Rane as Angie
Polly Noonan as Betty
Ann Schulman as Carla
James R. Wilson as Lawyer
Kim Keo as The Mechanical Singing Doll