Hooked on dying

Writer-director Finn Taylor is a young filmmaker who's smart enough to steal from the best, even if his precocious talent doesn't always use what he's swiped effectively.

Dream With the Fishes is Taylor's debut feature, a tightly executed, occasionally contrived study of two men trying to outrun death. The movie shamelessly--but with some inspiration--cobbles together themes, situations, and film techniques from the great comedies and dramas of the early 1970s. Pay close attention to the film's snaky, concentrated narrative line, and you'll see implicit or explicit references to The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, The King of Marvin Gardens, Easy Rider, and other films of a quarter-century ago that share two ideals--the streetwise education of an innocent by an eccentric, and the Hunter S. Thompsonian insistence that it's better to burn out than to fade away.

It's hard to tell whether Dream With the Fishes hooks your interest because of these weirdly authentic time-capsule glimpses or because filmmaker Taylor has the raw technical chops to do what's rare in the indie film world--make a low-budget comedy-drama that actually looks good. When you compare Dream With the Fishes to crummy-looking, critically lauded fare like Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy and Doug Liman's Swingers, it's clear that Taylor, unlike a lot of his peers, actually knows how to aim a camera. Too many of today's Sundance faves confuse the ability to write a screenplay with a strong visual sense. The result asks you to believe that reading a blueprint is a perfectly reasonable substitute for standing inside the finished building. The problem is, you can never quite escape the nagging sensation that some dimensions are missing.

If Dream With the Fishes had been directed by Kevin Smith, it would've fired meaningless machine-gun repartee down your throat while pretending its static, point-and-shoot technical amateurism was part of the whole indie mystique. This is not to say that Taylor's look at male bonding between a neurotic and a nihilist is an unqualified success--the film dips in and out of its own movie-buff smugness, as Taylor sometimes coasts too far on the recycled fumes of more accomplished movies. But for once, the characters in an indie film shut up and let the camera do the talking, and their plight is rendered all the more effectively because of it.

Terry (David Arquette) is a shy, fidgety loner who's never recovered from his beloved wife's death in a car accident. He spends his lonely nights spying through his window with binoculars on neighbors who live across the courtyard, including a couple named Nick (Brad Hunt) and Liz (Kathryn Erbe). Five minutes into the film, Nick is about to rob a liquor store, but is foiled when Terry comes in to buy a bottle of booze, hoping it will infuse him with enough courage to jump off a bridge.

Nick, in turn, foils Terry's suicide plans at the bridge by promising a less messy way out--Nick will trade Terry a bottle of pills for Terry's watch. The only catch is that Nick wants to watch Terry expire from the overdose. "How does it feel knowing you're about to die?" the angry Nick asks a fearful Terry, who chickens out at the last minute and has Nick deliver him to a hospital emergency room--only to discover that the handful of pills he swallowed were multivitamins.

The chip on Nick's shoulder, it turns out, is a never-explained degenerative illness that leaves Nick with only a month to live. An angry confrontation inside the hospital where Nick has gone for a blood transfusion turns into a rocky friendship between the two men. They go on a road trip, fulfilling a series of ridiculous/dangerous fantasies that underscore their mutual attraction/repulsion to death. Nick doesn't want to die, but wants to spend his last weeks dangling over the edge of the abyss for the sheer thrill of it (he tries heroin and, in large quantities, liquid LSD); Terry doesn't want to live, but his fear of dying translates into a kind of manic purgatory where he's willing to try anything to take his mind off the conflict.

The biggest problem with Dream With the Fishes was also seen in another wacky, highly enjoyable film about a road trip of personal discovery--David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster. In both cases, the filmmakers presume the universality of their lead characters' yearning, and so don't ground the hijinks with natural, pause-for-breath segues. After a while, the motion of Nick and Terry's downhill trajectory overwhelms their mission, so much of what happens flies by the audience in a blurry rush. Attitude is forced to take over, where a more disciplined storyline might have allowed these misadventures to form into their own Rorschach revelations of the characters' personalities. Whether they're visiting Terry's stripper aunt (Cathy Moriarty in a priceless cameo) or cooking heroin in a motel room, Nick and Terry become indiscriminate experience hounds whose recklessness starts to annoy us. We forget where their desperation comes from, so its consequences are mere hedonistic distractions.

Eventually, Brad Hunt's relentless antagonism as the dying Nick makes you long to shout "Somebody pull the plug!" the way Richard Dreyfuss' did in Whose Life Is It Anyway?. Sadly, Nick spends the lion's share of the movie in relative health (except for a pesky, sometimes comically delicious case of double vision), so his protestations about his mortality come across as whiny. David Arquette is more successful at doling out Terry's most obnoxious qualities in charming spoonfuls--he straddles the fence between life and death with a cowardice that's really just an unabashed desire for happiness wrapped in a few nervous tics.

The real star of Dream With the Fishes is cinematographer Barry Stone, who, along with director Taylor, worked with obsolete film stocks to develop a high-contrast look for the movie. The San Francisco nighttimes are great pools of black ink broken by gashes of neon, the interiors brightly but never harshly lit; the colors are conveyed here with the richness of oil paints. The fact that the picture being painted is terribly familiar sometimes distracts from the overall effort. There's a fine line between homage and ripoff, and with his first effort as writer-director, Finn Taylor maintains his balance long enough to make us forget we're watching a stunt.

Dream With the Fishes.
David Arquette, Brad Hunt, Kathryn Erbe, Cathy Moriarty. Written by Finn Taylor and Jeffrey Brown. Directed by Taylor. Opens Friday.


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