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American independent filmmaking used to provide a vital alternative to homogenized major studio fare. Purchasing a ticket to a movie by, say, John Cassavetes or Alan Rudolph guaranteed viewers an unconventional, intensely personal experience. But these days, the word “independent” has been co-opted by marketers to ballyhoo the formulaic, low-budget audition films of Hollywood wannabes. If these modest debut efforts prove commercially successful, the directorial hopefuls peddling their wares at the Sundance Festival are likely to be happily hacking at Disney next time out.

Writer-director Finn Taylor’s comedy-drama Dream With the Fishes, which premiered this year at Sundance, employs a few offbeat stylistic flourishes to camouflage an otherwise derivative effort patched together from bits of vintage features. The opening San Francisco bridge sequence, pinched from Murray Schisgal’s play and film Luv, depicts the meeting of two stereotypical characters—repressed voyeur Terry (Monsieur Hire, Leo the Last) and bitter hipster Nick (pick your favorite pre-’80s Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper role). Terry, who claims to have been plunged into despondency by his wife’s demise in a car crash, is prevented from leaping to his death by the Kevorkian Nick, who offers sleeping pills (in exchange for Terry’s wristwatch) as a surer, less painful method of departure. When an enraged Terry realizes that the capsules contain vitamins, he demands his timepiece back only to learn that Nick suffers from an unspecified Movie Disease and has only a few weeks left before buying the farm. The healthy man wants to die and the dying man wants to live.

Keep reading. It gets worse. Impoverished Nick proposes that he will make Terry the beneficiary of his life insurance policy (or, alternatively, shoot him) if the depressed peeping Tom agrees to withdraw his savings and accompany the hellbent rebel on a final, fantasy-fulfilling fling. (Cue Midnight Cowboy theme.) Slipping into the well-worn groove of buddy road pictures, Dream With the Fishes sets its protagonists on a winding highway of adventures including nude bowling with hookers, dropping acid and tripping in an amusement park (a ready-made symbol of Liberation), dancing together on a bar, freeing a fish from an aquarium (Turtle Diary anyone?), and reuniting with Nick’s glacial, macho father and sympathetic stripper aunt. Would you be surprised to learn that these experiences simultaneously revivify Terry and reconcile Nick to his fate?

Finn applies a façade of formal recklessness to these clichés: haphazard I Ching continuity and visuals that evolve from inky blacks and blinding whites to a warmer, more balanced palette as the film progresses. (Heroin shooting, a joke about a woman who paints her lover’s body with her menstrual blood, and the inclusion of “fuck” in every other line of dialogue also contribute to the film’s spurious aura of nonconformity.) But beneath Dream With the Fishes’ iconoclastic surface lurks the same sentimental sludge that we’ve been enduring for generations: a male/male love story that shrinks from exploring its sexual dimensions, and a dose of tragedy palliated by an uplifting fadeout in which the surviving character is spiritually redeemed. So much for independence.

At least Finn’s casting introduces us to some fresh faces. David Arquette—yes, another one—annoyingly whines through Terry’s early uptight scenes, but gains authority and depth as his character thaws. Brad Hunt brings raw, redneck energy to Nick’s violent mood shifts and inner struggles between cruelty and compassion. Kathryn Erbe, looking like a cross between Cher and Elvira, has little to do as Nick’s exhausted fiancée Liz. Though it’s always a pleasure to see Cathy Moriarty’s masklike face and hear her foggy voice, she’s wasted in the feeble, peripheral role of Aunt Elise. Several dozen supporting players, including Richmond Arquette as a sheriff (haven’t these people heard of family planning?), do what they can with what amount to walk-ons. The busy, frequently intrusive soundtrack blends Tito Larriva’s original score with snippets of recordings by Nick Drake, Jeremy Toback, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and a ringer, the late jazz vibist Cal Tjader.

Dream With the Fishes is less exasperating to sit through than most of the summer’s demographics-driven event movies, but it’s almost as calculated and schematic. Taylor’s fatuous comments about his work, reproduced in the press kit, are indistinguishable from the blabber spewed by big-time directors flacking their latest blockbusters on television: “You always hear about the negative side of death, but you don’t hear about the positive side of it….Death and rebirth. Water is a metaphor for spirituality and rebirth. Because I actually see this film more about rebirth and living than I do being about death. I think Terry learns how to live—to touch life now. As opposed to waiting around for it to happen for you. And the one thing you really get when you’re around someone who’s passed on is: The only way to be truly alive is to have death on your left shoulder. If you realize that you’re only here for a short time, you don’t postpone living out your dreams.”

Given that, indeed, we have only a brief time to realize our desires, is it wise to squander even a moment on hokum like Dream With the Fishes?CP