I’m not a sports fan, but I understand what it’s like to root for the losing team.
Sitting at home, watching some hard-working individuals trying to do their best, yet falling short of all expectations, including your own.
In the case of “Dave Made a Maze,” you can’t help but cheer writer-director Bill Watterson (no, not that Bill Watterson!) and his cast and crew as they tackle their project, yet it’s ultimately a fumble, albeit one that hopefully will not penalize further attempts at playing the movie game.
Alas, it’s easy to not only get lost in a maze early on, but to lose interest in finding the way out as well. Some of them are simply not worth finishing.
After an amusing animated credit sequence, the movie begins with Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) coming home to a find that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) used much of their available apartment space to build himself an “enormous” cardboard fort.
Now, he’s trapped inside it.
I put “enormous” in brackets because it’s seemingly not really that big, although Dave claims it’s much larger inside than it is on that outside. And he’s right; it turns out Dave’s creation is much like the four-dimensional habitat in Robert A. Heinlein’s “And He Built a Crooked House.”
The creation opens itself up into a cardboard nightmare world.
Annie goes into the maze to rescue Dave, followed by several friends, one of whom (James Urbaniak) is a wannabe documentary filmmaker who realizes that this could be his breakthrough opportunity and brings along a cameraman and boom operator as well.
Alas, no one remembers to bring along breadcrumbs or a ball of yarn, and soon they’re all lost in a labyrinth full of makeshift deathtraps and even a Minotaur (professional wrestler John Hennigan) in pursuit of them. Needless to say, Dave has a lot of explaining to do when they finally meet up with him.
Most filmmakers will tell you that no one in the industry deliberately sets out to make a cult film. The profits need to come in as quickly as possible, and they can’t wait for any residuals that might come in because they otherwise may never have the chance to make another movie.
All the same, in today’s fragmented viewing landscape, some movies seem to try from the outset to appeal to a particular viewing niche in the hopes of attracting an immediate repeat audience.
“Dave Made a Maze” seems initially to be a spontaneously conceived and original piece of whimsy, but its calculated quirkiness soon becomes very obvious.
It seems by design to be made for the sort of audience who enjoys Charlie Kaufmann films (a puppet motif similar to that found throughout Kaufmann’s oeuvre also turns up in this film), and binge-watches reruns of “Community” and “Portlandia” or pine for the print version of The Onion.
Being a sucker myself for whimsical fantasy and quirky comedy, I also felt like I was being targeted by the film’s trailers, and the fact that most critics I respected enjoyed it (Glenn Kenny was the exception) just increased my curiosity.
I wonder what could have happened since the film’s initial 2017 release that might have diminished my enthusiasm.
The biggest problem with the movie, and the source of most of this nagging feeling of calculated targeting, is with the characters. They’re all basically stereotypes we’ve seen in countless other indie comedies, already made of figurative cardboard even before some of them literally get turned into it.
You can practically imagine the casting instructions in the script, made not just to find the right actors but the right audience for the film as well: “Bill Hader type.” “Allison Brie type.” “Maya Rudolph with a touch of Kristen Wiig.” “David Cross but less of a jerk.” And so on.
It didn’t have to be this way.
One of the most sadly neglected movies of recent years was Michel Gondry’s “Mood Indigo,” an imaginative and visually stunning romantic fantasy. The film’s characters were vibrant, identifiable, and always center stage, and we never stopped caring about them.
It’s truly unfortunate that nowadays even more personal, low-budget movies serve as a reminder that all the visual invention in the world cannot compensate for a lack of humanity.
The movie is also poorly paced. It’s less than 80-minutes long yet feels like it runs for twice that length, and there’s a lack of proper timing in many of the comic scenes. It suffers from the same problem that has dogged most of Mike Myers’s self-written comedies, letting a running joke go on and on long after it has ceased to be funny, if it was even remotely amusing in the first place.
How many times exactly did characters need to be told not to stick their hand in an obscenely shaped hole in the wall, or be allowed to engage in bad imitations of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in “Raging Bull?”
(What prompts this gag is a moment where everyone is in black and white. I know I would start imitating Bogart and Cagney or Abbot and Costello instead if that happened to me.).
The low point in this regard comes in the film’s creepiest scene, where they encounter a friend who they lost in the maze early on but has now turned up transformed into a grotesque puppet (she looks like a paper-mâché version of the main villain from “Tourist Trap” ) that repeatedly asks for high-fives.
It grows downright irritating after about just two or three minutes of repeated requests till we’re finally yelling at the screen for them to let go of their hang-ups and just give her a high-five, if only to shut her up.
— Dave Made A Maze (@DaveMadeATweet) August 18, 2021
The best part of “Dave Made a Maze” comes near the end, when Dave, pressured by his frustrated comrades, finally delivers an angry rant explaining why he made his seemingly pointless maze. It’s a strong defense of art-for-art’s sake while at same time expressing what seems to be the film’s major theme.
Our pursuit of creative goals can come at the cost of friendships and family ties, and we need to decide which is more important to us.
Ultimately though, the movie winds up being much like Dave’s maze itself: a labor of love to be sure, and a genuine curiosity piece, but nowhere near a true artistic masterpiece.
A.A. Kidd is a sessional university instructor in Canada who proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He appreciates classic movies, hard science fiction and bad puns.