The wildly inventive Dave Made a Maze creates a fantastic universe on a tiny budget, using mostly cardboard. Yet although it's a scrappy indie, the movie has something in common with many platinum-plated CGI blockbusters: The visuals are as strong as the script is feeble.
The title character might be an aspiring musician, a frustrated artist, or just a guy who doesn't know what he should be doing, But 30-going-on-11 Dave (Nick Thune) has found something to fill his time while his more grown-up girlfriend is out of town. When Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns home, she finds that Dave has filled the living room with a cardboard fort.
It's pretty big as corrugated-paper edifices go, and even larger to someone who's looking from the inside out. When Annie asks Dave when he's coming out, he says he can't. "I'm lost," he admits.
For reasons that can't be explained, Dave has filled the maze-like citadel with booby traps. He insists that Annie shouldn't enter, but how can she not? By the time she begins the rescue mission, however, almost a dozen other curiosity-seekers are in tow. Most important to what passes for a plot are Dave's flippant pal Gordon (Adam Busch) and a three-man documentary crew led by Harry (James Urbaniak), whose approach is definitely not cinema verite.
Director and co-writer Bill Watterson (not the Calvin & Hobbes creator) and production designers John Sumner and Trisha Gum relied heavily on the Cardboard Institute of Technology. The San Francisco artist collective employed 30,000 square feet of paperboard to construct a series of chambers and passageways. These include a house of cards, a keyboard corridor whose black keys are portals, and a temple of doom that's guarded by origami creatures. Some of the spaces — including a chute, a screening room, and a large "lady part" — are alchemical.
To give the characters something to do in this recycling-bin wonderland, Watterson and co-scripter Steven Sears turn principally to two genres. First, Dave Made a Maze is a lampoon of documentary filmmaking, with Harry as essentially the same character as the one Albert Brooks wrote and played in 1979's prescient Real Life. Second, it's a horror flick.
Since most contemporary horror movies are self-parodies, the humorous possibilities are exceptionally limited. The principal joke is that most of the gore is made of paper or fabric. The major villain is a classical allusion, but that doesn't class up the joint.
Fans of outsider art and cinematic design should find much to enjoy in Dave Made a Maze. But even at a mere 80 minutes, the movie often seems to be stalling.
Watterson shares something with his protagonist: He doesn't know why the maze exists. Although he conceived a cardboard universe, the director fails to link it to the current vogue for home delivery. (No Amazon logos are visible on the boxes.) Watterson also doesn't do much with the other elephant in the room, Dave and Annie's relationship. In a story full of metamorphoses, their rut-stuck romance doesn't really change.
Ultimately, all the filmmakers can offer in way of explanation is a Hollywood in-joke. The maze, Dave offers, is "a passion project."