'Dreaming Grand Avenue' takes odd, imaginative detours in Chicago-set drama
"Dreaming Grand Avenue" - ★ ★ ★
Hugh Schulze's literally poetic "Dreaming Grand Avenue" skirts across genres with the reliable grace of an el train hitting every station stop on its way through Chicago.
It teases us with an initial promise of magical realism, then shifts into a fanciful rom-com before veering into personal trauma-ramas, until its emotional finale provides a surprising juxtaposition of poetry and social-justice outrage.
"Dreaming Grand Avenue" may have operated on a small budget, but its ideas are big, most of them involving the mystery and power of dreams.
This category-defying film finds new ways to observe the Windy City in all of its confounding contradictions: its elegance and grittiness, its familiarity and strangeness, its small-town warmth and big city dangers.
Plus, Lincoln Park hasn't looked this inviting since Joan Cusack, Adam Baldwin and Jennifer Beals hung out at the zoo as kids in Tony Bill's "My Bodyguard."
"Dreaming Grand Avenue" stars Jackson Rathbone and Andrea Londo as Jimmy and Maggie.
They have not met. In person.
But they keep running into each other in their dreams, stunning, lucid episodes on an el train surrounded by blissful water and neon colors.
Rathbone gives his struggling illustrator/artist an appealing vibe of a Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp mashup as he searches for a purpose as well as a paycheck. His girlfriend Amy (Bryce Gangel) has a steady job and waning patience for Jimmy to get his adult act together.
Londo exudes charm and sincerity as a committed day care employee who is sleepless in Chicago, the result of constant worry about her young charges being killed in the city's hail of stray bullets.
She consents to an experimental study done by a sleep specialist (a charismatic Tiffany Bedwell) who appears to have her own agenda for helping Maggie.
"Dreaming Grand Avenue" begins on an "It's a Wonderful Life" note.
A mysterious celestial guardian figure named Andromeda (Wendy Robie) has an assignment for Chicago "dream detective" Jack Yancy (Chicago icon, artist, actor and occasional critic Tony Fitzpatrick), a rumpled, crusty, world-weary gumshoe right out of a 1940s film noir classic. (His character could have been rendered in black and white, and it would have fit nicely into Schulze's movie.)
Yancy contacts Jimmy with a job offer, and that begins an exploration of loss and grief, punctuated by nightmarish visions, including smelly black goop oozing into a room, bodies floating in a lagoon, and a tough attorney magically morphing into Jimmy's half-brother, who is also a Jimmy.
I wanted to love "Dreaming Grand Avenue" for its boundless imagination, but wound up with more appreciation than affection.
The main characters rarely react with any sense of awe or wonder at their astonishing dream-linked experiences.
"Have you ever met anyone from a dream before?" Jimmy asks Maggie, as if discussing the latest ballgame. He has just magically met the literal woman of his dreams and his reaction -- and hers -- seems underwhelming and cool.
"Dreaming Grand Avenue" prefers to tell instead of show, and Christopher Rejano's clean, dreamy camera work already shows us a lot.
The dialogue often feels expository at the expense of spontaneity or cleverness, and conversations tend to be dominated by micro-lectures on the nature and importance of dreams.
But, hey, how many movies offer a guest appearance by poet Walt Whitman (Troy West) in a poetry slam at Chicago's Green Mill Cocktail Lounge?
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Starring: Andrea Londo, Jackson Rathbone, Tony Fitzpatrick, Wendy Robie
Directed by: Hugh Schulze
Other: A New City Chicago Film Project production at Chicago's Showplace Icon and Music Box theaters, plus at musicbox.com. Not rated. 99 minutes