Finn Taylor's "Dream With the Fishes" recalls a peculiarly innocent film genre, the whimsical, try-anything 1970s film with characters who drop out of the mainstream on their journey to enlightenment, be it peaceful or tragic. It's an endearingly eccentric blueprint, especially in these blockbuster-driven times.
Yet filmmaking itself has grown more knowing since these films (think "The Last Detail," "Easy Rider" or almost anything with Elliott Gould) enjoyed their brief vogue. Taylor's sharply etched, nicely offbeat debut feature has, for better and worse, much more diffidence and sophistication than the naive cinematic model to which it aspires.
Taylor, a writer of the super-quirky "Pontiac Moon," introduces two men who happen to be at the ends of their respective ropes. Terry (David Arquette), a prim-looking voyeur with a choked, quavery voice, is about to jump off a bridge when he is distracted by Nick (Brad Hunt), an appealingly raffish thief. All Nick really wants is Terry's watch, but somehow this becomes the start of an odd-couple friendship. And perhaps a very brief one, since it soon appears that Nick is terminally ill. Early in the story, he winds up temporarily in the hospital with an IV in one arm and Terry's watch on the other.
Flying in the face of mortality, Nick and Terry embark in search of idiosyncratic adventures. And it's in the nature of these exploits that the film is least interesting. They trifle with hard drugs and petty crime. They trip on LSD at an amusement park, and Nick has his fortune told in poetic terms that yield the film's title. They hook up with Nick's aunt (Cathy Moriarty), a blowsy ex-stripper who keeps her tassels framed like trophies on the wall. They pick up two prostitutes for naked bowling, though this sequence is helped by the women's baleful glares and by what one of them says is her real calling. It's a body-painting project that would give even Peter Greenaway pause.
Finn has a fine, succinct way with such acerbic touches, and he gives "Dream With the Fishes" a lean and distinctive visual style. (Unusually high-contrast cinematography by Barry Stone is used with stark effectiveness.) What he doesn't do is make it matter much whether Nick and Terry live or die. The film's manner is so coolly detached that its characters' whistling in the dark takes on a cavalier edge. Finn, who has said that this story is in many ways autobiographical, may want to describe a way of living life to the fullest, but his film's outlook is made soulless by its diffident style.
The most piquant supporting character in "Dream With the Fishes" is Liz (Kathryn Erbe), Nick's devoted but bored-looking girlfriend. When she first speaks to Terry (who has already been peeping at her through his binoculars), she is in the process of inflicting a tattoo. Does it hurt, Terry asks her? Liz scowls, telling him he asked the wrong question.
"Do you enjoy the pain?" she says he should have inquired. "See, that's provocative. Leaves room for further questions."
E! Online Most road movies veer off course the moment they hit the pavement, but this one has a rambling charm that never loses its direction. Terry (Arquette) is about to jump when he's "rescued" by Nick (Hunt), a petty thief and junkie who's hooked on life--too bad he's dying. Nick convinces Terry to bankroll a few last adventures. In exchange, he'll sign over his life insurance policy to Terry--or shoot him. Arquette, an endearing sad-sack of an actor, plays straight-man to Hunt in a star-making turn. Nothing's predictable in this exuberantly original film about friendship and the ability to forge meaningful ones at the unlikeliest moments.
Roger Ebert Sony Classics presents a film written and directed by Finn Taylor. Produced by Johnny Wow and Mitchell Stein. Photographed by Barry Stone. Edited by Rick Le Compte. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive strong language, some drug content and sexuality).
Desperation sometimes brings with it a certain clarity. Early in ``Dream With the Fishes,'' a character is balanced on a bridge, ready to commit suicide by throwing himself off, when he's interrupted by a stickup man who asks for his wristwatch: ``Since you're going to be dead in a few minutes anyway, what use will it be to you?''
The would-be suicide is named Terry (David Arquette). The stickup guy is Nick (Brad Hunt). ``Could I have some privacy?'' Terry asks. That's ironic, since in the opening scenes we've seen that Terry is a peeping tom who spies on his neighbors with binoculars, and his favorite subjects are Nick and his girlfriend Liz (Kathryn Erbe).
From this unlikely Meet Cute, ``Dream With the Fishes'' generates a free-ranging road and buddy movie that, with its use of drugs and counterculture spirit, could be a '70s production--made when characters could slip through a movie without carrying a lot of plot along with them.
Terry climbs down off the bridge after Nick paints an unpleasant picture (``Hitting the water from this height, it will be like hitting concrete''). Nick makes a better offer: In return for the watch, he'll give Terry enough pills to finish himself off. But the offer is a fraud, the pills are vitamins, and the two opposites gradually, warily become friends. If this sounds too easy, it doesn't feel that way in Finn Taylor's movie because the screenplay goes for an edgy, elegiac tone, and we suspect that both men are carrying more secrets than they're willing to reveal.
Motivated by Nick's deteriorating health and a bargain the two of them strike, they embark on a journey. There are adventures in the spirit of the old road movies, an unplanned robbery, and even an acid trip involving a cop who pulls his gun and shoots some doughnuts dead. Their destination is Nick's childhood home, where his father, Joe (J.E. Freeman), slams the door on him. Joe has apparently had enough of his son for one lifetime, and after he finally lets him into the house we guess the nature of their relationship from a painful shoulder-butting contest.
Freeman is good as the cool, distant father: A hard case himself, and fed up with his son. Allyce Beasley, as his mother, is weary of her son's lifelong screwups, but more loving. Where he finds acceptance and some understanding, however, is with his Aunt Elise (Cathy Moriarty), a former stripper with a blowzy friendliness. Eventually Liz, the apprehensive, tattoo-obsessed girlfriend, catches up with them.
The story provides a deadline in the form of Nick's health. But the surface is as meandering as a 1970s road movie: Colorful characters materialize, do their thing and shrink in the rearview mirror. Taylor's screenplay is skillful in the way it presents us with Nick and Terry, who are equally unlikable, and subtly humanizes them, while Kathryn Erbe gradually modulates Liz, so that beneath her fearsome surface we begin to sense shadows and softness.
``Dream With the Fishes'' is a first film, and shows some of the signs of unchained ambition. Its visual style can be a distraction, beginning with the grainy, saturated look of a music video, and then leveling out into flat realism, then getting fancy again. Although many directors have tried using contrasting visual styles to control the tone of a film (switching between black-and-white and color is an old technique), what usually happens is that we get sidetracked by the style changes, and the mood is broken. Better, I think, to choose a look for a film and stick with it, unless there are persuasive reasons to experiment.
There is also a plot point, involving the wife that Terry says he lost in a car crash, that is resolved a little awkwardly. That strand shows signs of having survived from a first draft, maybe because Taylor needed some quick motivation. His finished film creates enough of an arc for Terry that the wife is not needed.
How ``Dream With the Fishes'' works is that the road movie and buddy movie formulas slowly dissolve from around Nick and Terry, who by the end of the movie stand revealed in three dimensions; it's the cinematic equivalent of what sculptors call the lost-wax method.
``Johns,'' a movie about male prostitutes in Los Angeles, has a moment that offers a key to the film: Tourists offer a hustler $20 to pose in a snapshot with them. They want to show the folks back home that they've not only seen the sights, they've met the locals.
There was a time when most people didn't know men sold sex, and didn't want to know. Now the cruising underworld is the stuff of movies, songs, novels and fashion ads that are easy to decode. ``Johns'' dramatizes the lifestyle at the same time it tells a cautionary tale: Young man! Stay off of the streets! (Sing to the tune of ``YMCA.'') The audience, like the tourists, gets to meet the locals while keeping a safe distance. That's because the hustling world is sentimentalized here, filtered through a lens of romanticism.
The movie stars Lukas Haas and David Arquette as Donner and John, who work Santa Monica Boulevard, nurtured by their dreams: John wants to spend his 21st birthday in a luxury hotel room, and Donner wants them both to take the bus to Branson, Mo. Donner is gay and loves John; John says he's straight and working only for the money, and he does have a girlfriend, although the relationship is fleeting and chancy.
The film's symbolism is established early, when we learn that John's birthday is Christmas Day. He wears a stolen Santa hat for much of the film, and in an encounter with a violent client, he picks up the marks of a crown of thorns. More symbolism: Three characters in the movie are named John, and all of the clients of course are called ``johns,'' perhaps indicating that everyone is in the same boat. (Donner's name reminds me of the notorious Donner Party, suggesting still more parallels.)
Christ symbolism makes me apprehensive in a movie; it tips the ending, and, besides, most Christ figures die for their own sins, not for ours. But ``johns'' overcomes the undergraduate symbol-mongering of its screenplay with a story that comes to life in spite of itself, maybe because the actors are so good, or maybe because the writer-director, Scott Silver, has documentary roots that correct for his overwriting.
Silver does a good job of capturing the unsprung rhythm of the street. Although one of the characters is always asking what time it is, that never really matters; time is what he sells, not what he passes. The characters form a loose-knit community, at the mercy of strangers in cars. They may spend hours together and then not see one another for a week. We meet some of the street regulars: Crazy Eli (Christopher Gartin), for example, who spouts wild theories, or Homeless John (Keith David), who turns up from time to time like John the Baptist, with support and encouragement.
Working from stories he got from real life, Silver shows his heroes encountering a series of johns: One turns suddenly violent, one (well played by Elliott Gould) is a kind-hearted guy who sneaks in some action while his family is out shopping, one is an old man with peculiar tastes who wants to know ``who in the Sam Hill'' Donner thinks he is.
There is some underlying urgency: John has stolen $300 that belongs to a drug dealer (Terrence Dashon Howard) and now the dealer and his bodyguard are looking for him. He wants to use the $300 for his hotel room. Will he get his dream before the dealer gets the money? There is an ominous sign: His ``lucky sneakers'' are stolen at the beginning of the movie. Nothing bad could happen to him while he was wearing them, but now . . .
David Arquette and Lukas Haas find the right note for their characters: They have plans and dreams, but vague ones, and they're often sort of detached, maybe because their lives are on hold in between johns. They have fallen into a lifestyle that offers them up during every waking moment for any passing stranger. They do it for money, but it pays so badly, they can't save up enough to stop. What the johns are really paying them for is not sex, but availability: to remain homeless and permanently on call.
Rarely is David Arquette allowed such a dramatic opportunity than allotted him in JOHNS. The film, inspired by real life male prostitutes, is about two young male hustlers, John and Donner (Arquette and Lukas Haas), who decide it’s time to make better for themselves and leave Los Angeles for Bronson, Missouri where they will make money the honest way and work at a theme park named Camelot.
Arquette proves himself to be more than Dewey the dopey cop from the SCREAM films. As in THE ALARMISTS, Arquette is substantial in his performance and grabs hold of the very core of his character. He knows what his character is about, even using the awkward uneasiness of shooting certain intimate scenes with other men as a crutch. Arquette recognizes the dilemma and brings that to his character, a heterosexual who fights with himself daily to enable him to perform homosexuals acts to make a buck. It’s very apparent the struggle he endures and he knows it’s translating on screen all to his benefit.
Writer/Director Scott Silver brings intrigue to his script and direction, yet, as many directors who direct their own work, he forgets that every sentence, every action, every movement is NOT gold. And a lot of the mundane stuff could be easily lost without sacrificing anything. Silver, at times, inadvertently brings tedium to his otherwise well made and well written film. Another inadequacy that Silver may have done unintentionally was to lighten up the streets a bit. There are few other hustlers there and very few drugs, if any, used on camera.
The real, true harshness of John’s and Donner’s world is not entirely clear and all we really know is what we know already, is that selling your body for a living is not a keen way to live. The nitty, gritty life of a street hustler, or as Donner would say an “entertainer,” is not explored. Therefore leaving a true desperation to getting out of town nonexistent, again, except for the fact that there are better ways to make a living.
The newly released DVD holds special features, which include language options, scene selections, star bios and a commentary by the stars Arquette and Hass that amount to little more than the two giggling while explaining their character’s MOs. There’s not much insight from the guys except when Hass explains how he accidentally burned down his hotel room while filming.