The first time I saw Arizona Dream, I was smitten. I had been waiting to see the movie for three years by the time I stumbled into the video, and when I finally watched it, it just took my breath away. It was inventive and original, funny and touching, visually stunning and utterly unlike anything I had ever seen. The fact that it starred Johnny Depp only added to the allure, and it quickly took up residence in my heart.
Really, what’s not to love about Axel Blackmar (Depp), a thoughtful, endearingly disheveled young man with an appreciation for all things off the beaten path? His fascination with dreams, symbols, and metaphors transfer nicely to the film’s narration, and it’s refreshing to look at the world through Axel’s eyes. He makes his job tagging fish for the New York Department of Fish and Game seem captivating, so you can bet that things get even more interesting when he sets out for Arizona at the insistence of his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo). Their Uncle Leo Sweetie (Jerry Lewis) is getting married to the much younger Millie (Paulina Porizkova), and it wouldn’t be right for Axel to miss the occasion. Leo was his childhood hero, after all.
After the wedding, Axel begrudgingly accompanies Leo and Paul to Sweetie Cadillac, but makes it clear that he has no interest in going into the family business. He is, however, quite taken by one of the customers, Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway). This chance meeting launches an unlikely love affair that soon finds Axel living with Elaine and her chronically suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor). The women lead a rather shapeless existence (thanks to a large inheritance), but Axel fits right in. His spends his days immersed in their romance, trying (without much success) to build a machine that will allow Elaine to fly, just as she has already dreamed.
It’s a curious little phase in the life of Axel Blackmar that eventually runs its course. His Arizona Dream serves as a rite of passage into adulthood, and its a journey that’s well worth taking with him. The story is as funny and poignant as it is peculiar, and all of the major players offer up excellent performances. Jerry Lewis particularly stands out as he tones down his usual schtick and offers a tender rendering of Uncle Leo.
Sadly, my sense of wonderment was diminished somewhat by the third viewing of the movie. Once-striking scenes of Grace smoking and playing the accordion took on an infernal quality this go-round, and I suddenly became aware of how much the movie resembles the plot: there are definite areas of shapelessness. Though I’m surprised that the movie is not as perfect as I remembered, there’s a reason I fell in love the first time, and I still give it a qualified recommendation.