A flat-out imitation of some more adventurous strains in ’70s U.S. cinema, ”Dream With the Fishes” ends up looking wholly original in the current indie landscape. Refreshing, unexpectedly profound comedy will require some careful handling to reach the right auds, but word of mouth should ensure considerable sleeper success.
Opening doesn’t promise much in the way of humor, as button-down, twitchy Terry (David Arquette) spies with binoculars and pants down on a lowlife-looking couple in the San Francisco apartment across from his. Getting no satisfaction from this voyeurism, he goes to a liquor store, unknowingly aborting a holdup by the man just spied upon. Latter perceives a likely mugging target, and follows the booze-gulping, disheveled Terry as he crawls atop a bridge barrier, ready to jump. Unsavory Nick (Brad Hunt) stares on, saying ”I just wanted to watch.”
A few crass words about the unpleasant possibility of surviving such a fall convince Terry to follow Nick back home; barbiturates are promised (for overdosing), in exchange for Terry’s expensive watch. First real hint of black comedy comes when Terry, reluctantly driven to the hospital after swallowing pills and having second thoughts, realizes he’s been duped with multivitamins.
Upshot of all this is another baroque ”trade”: Heroin addict Nick (who’s been given just a few weeks to live, for rea-sons never specified) agrees to kill Terry (suicidal since his wife’s accidental death, or so he says) if Terry bank-rolls some of Nick’s lifelong ”fantasies.”
Pic rapidly gets giddier as he’s forced to participate in several, starting off with a nude bowling episode with two prostitutes (one of whom says ”You know, I only do this to support my art”). This is topped, however, by a hilari-ous episode where both men drop acid in public, inadvertently dosing a suspicious cop en route. Once the high times wear off, however, Nick grows very weak, and a gun-wielding pharmaceutical stop to replenish his medica-tions forces duo to go on the lam.
They drive to redwood country, where a cold reception from Nick’s extra-macho dad necessitates crashing in the more tolerant home of exotic dancer Aunt Elise (Cathy Moriarty). Some good times with her and old friends are briefly interrupted when Nick’s live-in city girlfriend, the very tough Liz (Kathryn Erbe), shows up, furious with worry over his several-day absence.
Everybody makes peace, after a fashion, but Nick’s health is now seriously deteriorating.
In rough outline, ”Dream” is familiar stuff: Unlikely outlaw/nerd buddies bond as tragedy looms, with the four-eyes turning over a new live-for-today leaf via the pal whose number is up. But writer-director Finn Taylor (scenarist of ”Pontiac Moon”) manages to make every element seem fresh.
By the time anything resembling conventional sentimentality arrives, the characters have earned our genuine af-fection. Credible twists keep coming right up to the end, though a final revelation re Terry’s ”wife” could be a bit more cleanly delivered.
Homage to ’70s pics from ”Dealing” to ”California Split” is multileveled, from the unapologetic flaunting of all types of substance use to the vaguely retro costuming. (When Nick’s escalating double vision suggests use of an eyepatch, there’s no mistaking his striking resemblance to John Heard in ”Cutter’s Way,” another key film.) Print was rushed through the lab to make a Sundance date, with result that just its first half had been processed to further imitate the grainy, color-saturated look of quirkier ’70s projects. It’s a cool look, though Barry Stone’s lensing is fine even without the extra fillip.
Most impressive, however, is the way Taylor orchestrates a breezy, like-mindedly subversive tribute to that period’s maverick films sans excessive derivation, nailing every outre and/or heartfelt story nuance. Perfs are excellent on down the line, with Arquette and Hunt slowly filling in a connective gray zone between their radically different protags; support characters are a quirky, deftly etched lot. Excellent use of largely ’70s songs (Patti Smith, Nick Drake, etc.) cries for a soundtrack release.