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Death in the '90s.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 11, 1998:  At first glance, Dream With the Fishes (1997, R) doesn't look terribly inviting. I probably picked up the video box and set it back down five or six times before I actually rented it. Why? Well, first of all, the packaging brags about being a Sundance Film Festival favorite. That wouldn't be a turn-off, except that every film that shows at Sundance subsequently brags about having been a "favorite" there, and some pretty lousy movies have shown at Sundance.

Second, it stars the whiny David Arquette, who is a star only because they needed a nerdy guy to offset the beautiful people in the two Scream films. Third, it's yet another debut film by a young writer-director (in this case, Finn Taylor) about angsty white middle-class twenty-somethings. Yawn.

But there have been some good films about angsty white middle-class twenty-somethings (heck, that's all The Graduate is), and Dream With the Fishes is one of them. Arquette plays to his strengths as a lonely, self-centered voyeur who decides he wants to kill himself. Before he can, he meets up with his neighbor (Brad Hunt), a cynical tough guy dying of some undefined terminal illness. The two strike a deal: Arquette will help Hunt achieve certain unfulfilled fantasies (nude bowling, for example) if Hunt will then help Arquette commit suicide. The movie is amusingly unpredictable from the start—it even has a twist ending—and Arquette and Hunt make an entertaining odd couple. And the ultimate morals about life and how to live it seem earned, if not exactly ground-breaking.

In tone, it's somewhat reminiscent of Long Island auteur Hal Hartley's deadpan dramas. Hartley, who's kind of an ironic minimalist, even had his own suicidal protagonist in Trust (1991, R), in which a brooding Martin Donovan wanders around with a hand grenade stuffed into his overcoat so he can kill himself whenever he wants. His life turns a little less bleak when he meets pregnant teen Adrienne Shelly. As usual, it's a little unclear when Hartley's playing his clichés straight and when he's poking fun at them. But Donovan and Shelly are both likable, and the film has peculiar warmth beneath its chilly artifice.

Dream With the Fishes also recalls indie bad boy Gregg Araki's 1992 film The Living End (R). In that low-budget road movie—a drama laced with black humor—two HIV-positive lovers hit the highway with a gun, a little money, and no particular place to go. Like both of the above films, it's really more about living than dying.

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