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Dying to Succeed

Talk about tragically hip. The doomed hero of Finn Taylor's quirky buddy picture Dream With the Fishes is Nick, a surly young thief with a taste for tequila and heroin who just happens to be dying of leukemia. His opposite number is Terry, a straitlaced Peeping Tom whose life is so empty that he wants to jump off a bridge.

Once Nick stops trying to rob Terry, figure this Odd Couple to undertake one last go-to-hell binge together. To affirm the power of life over death, the primacy of friendship over cynicism. And to go bowling naked with a pair of hookers.

Put another way, if Quentin Tarantino or Gus Van Sant were to plunk Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck down in the grunge districts of San Francisco in 1997, their movies might look and sound a little like this one. But let's not give short shrift to the Oakland-born Taylor, who's making his directorial debut after writing the screenplays for a trio of obscure Hollywood features--Pontiac Moon, Available Light and Thief of Santa Monica. Dream With the Fishes grows on you in direct proportion to the way Nick (Brad Hunt) and Terry (David Arquette) grow on you, which is by leaps and bounds. The blackly comic stuff--sticking up a drugstore, say, then insisting on paying full price for the drugs--is bracing neo-(Groucho) Marxism. The meditations on death have the same cool tone Jean-Luc Godard mastered way back in the days of Breathless. And the weird social bargain our heroes strike--Nick promises to kill Terry if he'll just hang around until the end--achieves the kind of postmodern absurdity hip young filmmakers are always shooting for but usually miss.

Little matter that Taylor peppers Nick and Terry's final adventure with old jokes like the cop who inadvertently takes LSD, or bank robbers who change their mind halfway through the job.

In reel one, the unlikely pals can't stand each other. "You've invented a new type of suicide," street-hardened Nick tells his geeky new acquaintance. "You're gonna bore yourself to death." Not so: The comic irony of the piece lies in the love of life a dying man transmits to a guy who wants to die.

Luckily, some other characters go along for the ride as the boys play out their last fantasies, which include everything from gorging on Cracker Jack to dropping acid at an amusement park. Nick's sullen girlfriend Liz (Kathryn Erbe) turns out to be a sweetheart beneath her hard pose, and her hospital-room wedding to Nick is a bittersweet gem. His Aunt Elise (Raging Bull's Cathy Moriarty) is an ex-stripper who knows how to strip away pretensions. Nick's sour, alienated father (J.E. Freeman) turns out to be more than a brutish caricature.

At crunch time, though, Butch and Sundance must always face their demons alone. Nick and Terry's bonding doesn't seem so peculiar once they've both looked the grim reaper in the eye, tried to name all Seven Dwarfs and--corny as it must sound to the denizens of hipdom--considered the existence of the hereafter. "In your previous life you were a fish," a goggle-eyed fortune-teller tells Nick, and that's good enough for him. Suddenly, we, too, start to look at water--and fish--differently. We start to think about Saint Nicholas, ex-street punk. Even in the realm of postmodern pose, a little magic can't hurt now and then.

--Gallo

Dream With the Fishes.
Written and directed by Finn Taylor. With David Arquette, Brad Hunt, Cathy Moriarty and Kathryn Erbe.

 
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