'Strawberry Mansion' Review: An Anti-Capitalism Fever Dream That's A Real Snooze [Sundance 2021]

A defeated-looking businessman (co-writer and co-director Kentucker Audley) sits in a Pepto Bismol-pink house, full of pink utensils and pink food, nothing real except his despair and a bucket of fried chicken wings that his "Buddy" (Linas Phillips) enthusiastically hawks to him. "Juicy and delicious!" Buddy says before biting into the chicken, smacking his lips obscenely and violently.

It's a strikingly surreal image that sets the stage for Strawberry Mansion, an ambitious outing from directing duo Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley that aspires to be a candy-colored retrofuturistic fever dream, but ends up to be something more along the lines of a wax museum of wasted ideas.

Strawberry Mansion is set in some near-distant future where the government taxes people's dreams, getting a tiny dividend whenever someone dreams of fast-food chicken or expensive instruments. Audley stars as James Preble, a dream taxman sent to audit the dreams of the eccentric Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), whose dreams set him off on a cosmic romance that transcends generations.

Preble is clearly unhappy in his life, but he can't articulate why. He dutifully humors "Buddy" in his dream, grabbing a piece of chicken from Buddy's always-full bucket, and upon waking, driving to the nearest chicken fast food restaurant to buy a real bucket of wings. But when shown any kind of real-life affection, he cringes away from it. The subject of his latest case, a batty old woman who insists that he call her "Bella," immediately takes a liking to him when he knocks on her door, handing him an ice cream cone and insisting that he must lick it in order to enter. Baffled, he refuses at first, but finally does, the camera aggressively closing in to show Preble's tongue (showing every single papillae in excruciating detail) taking a swipe of the cherry-red ice cream.

Satisfied, Bella allows him to enter her home, which he finds stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of videotapes — an analog way of cataloging ones dreams that had been discontinued for years. He sighs and gets to work, Bella excitedly inviting him to stay in her guest room while he logs the items in each dream. But the longer he stays in Bella's home, the more Preble's perspective starts to shift. Bella is no longer the batty old woman in a tinfoil helmet (which she wore to first greet Preble at the door), but the statuesque blonde beauty in a white dress (Grace Glowicki) whom he sees in her dreams, playing violin (wrongly, I might add, which bothered me as a former violin player) and sharing picnics with strange grass-covered men. Preble starts to fall in love, but his wistful admiration of the young Bella is cut short when he is suddenly warned via her dreams that he is in danger.

The film's biggest failing may be its central romance, which fails to sell the audience on the remarkably low stakes. Preble and Bella speak in expressionless riddles to each other, the film's telegraphing of their cosmic destiny working overtime to keep us invested in this pairing. Glowicki strikes an ethereal figure in her delicate white dress and Audley is ever the perplexed everyman, but their long, penetrating gazes and the brightly saturated environments that the film places them in, do not a cosmic romance make.

There's a lot to like about Strawberry Mansion. Its sheer imagination, its eye-popping visuals, its uncanny vision of Americana. There are gnarled moments created via stop-motion animation, talking life-size rats sailing a pirate ship, and all manner of strange warped imagery. It's pop art made into a feature film, which is a swell idea — if there's an emotional core that can carry the audience through the staid surrealism. But Audley and the rest of the cast choose to play their characters like stoic ciphers, barely formed archetypes who glide through the film as if in some kind of permanent dream state themselves, making Strawberry Mansion feel even less anchored to reality. The result is a self-indulgent style exercise that ends up almost being a complete snooze — not the kind of feeling you want to get from a film whose premise promises to be Black Mirror meets Satoshi Kon's Paprika, but ends up being not nowhere near as interesting as either. One dreams of a more successful version of this audacious, but inert, film.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10