Voyeurism, attempted suicide, and terminal illness may not exactly be the stuff of traditional comedy, but thankfully that never occurred to writer / director Finn Taylor. If it did, he certainly wasn't convinced. Working with his own, apparently somewhat autobiographical script, Dream With the Fishes is one of those quirky, small films that – for whatever reason – never garnered the attention it should have. Shot in northern California in twenty-six days and an official selection of the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, it gathered some positive reviews and decent word of mouth, but unfortunately never resonated on a larger scale. Although Dream doesn't quite live up to its promise of becoming a full-blown cult item, it remains an eccentric, pleasantly surprising film that attempts to bridge gallows humor and heartfelt drama and generally succeeds.
Terry (David Arquette) is a milquetoast and a voyeur. After spying on his romantically entangled neighbors Nick (Brad Hunt) and Liz (Kathryn Erbe), he decides to go to a liquor store, where his entrance inadvertently prevents a hold up about to occur by Nick. This is a nice piece of luck for the store's clerk, but not so for Terry – as he is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, he's confronted by the would-be robber. Advising Terry that a jump from such a height would result in carnage, Nick proposes a deal: if Terry will give him his watch, he'll supply him with a lethal dosage of pills. Exasperated, Terry agrees, returns home with Nick, and takes the pills. Fearing his imminent death and not entirely sure that suicide was the right decision, Terry demands to be taken to the hospital, where learns that he ingested time-released vitamins rather than sleeping pills. Not amused, Terry decides he wants his watch back and sets out to get it.
Terry is lead back to the hospital while following Liz, and, overhearing a doctor discussing Nick's case, learns that Nick is suffering from leukemia and has only a few weeks left to live. After an initial confrontation between the two, another odd bargain is proposed by Nick: Option a) if Terry will provide the financial means for Nick to indulge his fantasies in his last days, he'll make him the beneficiary of his fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy; or, Option b) Nick will kill Terry prior to his own death, but not before they get to raise some hell together. This premise may sound ridiculously contrived and a bit twee, but in the context of the characterizations it almost makes sense: Nick has always embraced living, and desires to take his final moments to even greater extremes; Terry, the suicidal widow, has ceased "living" entirely and is floundering (Nick sarcastically remarks that Terry has invented a new form of suicide – "... you're gonna bore yourself to death"). The deal now struck, they take off with a few thousand dollars, a few weeks, and an uncertain alliance – and without Liz's knowledge.
As they embark on their journey, typically "wacky" road movie antics ensue, albeit ones served with occasionally perverse, deadpan twists – LSD ingestion, being pulled over by the police, consultations with psychics, naked bowling, armed robbery, and a visit to Nick's hometown. There they meet up with Nick's Aunt Elise (Cathy Moriarty, breathing throaty, sultry life into the proceedings as an ex-stripper once dubbed "the helicopter"), old friends, and Nick's embittered and competitive father (J.E. Freeman, lending stone-faced support), with whom he attempts reconciliation in a bizarre, violent fashion. It's only a matter of time before Liz tracks the two down and Nick's health begins to take a clear-eyed, irreversible turn for the worse.
Writer / director Taylor alternates his presentation effectively with off-kilter framing and a highly contrasted color scheme in the outset and a more naturalistic approach as the film progresses. Dream With the Fishes' narrative takes some frank and surprising turns, and admirably resists the temptation to either sermonize or spoon feed. David Arquette, whose tendencies toward abject mania can quickly prove exasperating, is surprisingly effective in what would have to be considered – for lack of a better term – the straight role here. Brad Hunt gives a much showier performance that, after a certain awkwardness in the beginning, becomes much more clearly focused. Kathryn Erbe, a powerful actress when given a meaty role (as anyone familiar with HBO's Oz can attest) is - unfortunately - not given all that much to do. The supporting players all lend solid (if unremarkable) performances.
Video: Presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Dream With the Fishes looks pretty good. Although there are occasional instances of debris, it is generally a smooth transfer. The cinematography by Barry Stone alters, as noted above, between a gauzy, highly saturated presentation and a cleaner approach as the film progresses. Accordingly, the colors, especially in the opening scenes, jump from the screen, and blacks are generally well rendered. All in all, Dream is given a solid, if not spectacular, presentation.
Audio: Presented in a DD 2.0, the Dream With the Fishes sound mix is not heavy on surround features, but it is balanced and sounds adequate. The soundtrack, however, is excellent. Taylor's selection of music is as idiosyncratic as his subject matter, and it features such well-chosen acts from the Waterboys to Nick Drake.
Extras: The only extras available on this release are a collection of four trailers and a music video of Greg Brown's "Sadness," which is featured prominently in the film.
Final Thoughts: An enjoyable, decidedly off kilter film, Dream With the Fishes is a pleasant, welcome addition to the road flick genre so popular in American film of the seventies. This sort of enterprise is – to say the least – tricky, but Dream largely succeeds, even though it makes a few missteps along the way. To Taylor's (and the actors') credit, the mixture of acid-black humor and broad comedy that threatens to try the film's humanity and drama never trumps it. By turns edgy, awkward, and funny, Dream With the Fishes also manages to never resort to mawkishness or cheap sentimentality, even if its surprises are ultimately balanced out by its own self-conscious eccentricities. As a first time feature, Dream is admirably true to its own skewed vision. Recommended as a rental.