It’s tempting to compare “Dave Made a Maze” to the surrealist mischief of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” and “Anomalisa.” With its fantastical tale of a slacker lost in the cardboard fort he’s built, this film from first-time director Bill Watterson is strange even by indie-oddity standards. You won’t come to “Dave” for the unpolished interplay, but you’ll surely stay for its preposterously elaborate kid-crafty sets.
An animated opening introduces Dave (comedian Nick Thune) as a scattered creative type who’s got one Big Idea after another, but who’s lousy at follow-through. No great surprise that his chance glimpse of an ant farm inspires him to gather appliance boxes, egg cartons, and other pre-K building supplies and craft an OCD labyrinth in his living room. Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), Dave’s long-suffering girlfriend, isn’t entirely surprised either, but she’s still a little distressed that he won’t — or can’t — come out, and that his voice has become a weirdly distant echo.
Despite Dave’s warnings to keep out — his construct is disorientingly bigger on the inside, he cautions — Annie heads in to rescue him. She’s joined by their wisecracking buddy Gordon (Adam Busch), a gaggle of other friends, and even — why not? — an inquiring documentarian (James Urbaniak).
It takes the group a while to locate Dave, but what they find in the meantime is cavernous, and wondrous. (Completely recyclable, too!) A hall with an idol of Great Oz-ian enormity spewing confetti fury. A parlor that’s all “Alice in Wonderland” perspective tricks. A room where Dave has turned the packaging from that electronic keyboard he never plays into an unending corridor of tickle-ready ivories. A box-headed minotaur that not only works the labyrinth motif, but also recalls legendary doodlemeister Terry Gilliam and “Time Bandits.”
There aren’t sufficient words to describe the remarkable visual environment; suffice it to say that the production designers are the stars here as much as the cast. More so, really.
Despite Thune’s stand-up background, he and Kumbhani banter stiffly, and they struggle to lend resonance to quarter-life existential musings. Busch and Urbaniak have better luck with comedic bits. But ultimately, it’s all the cardboard that keeps us from getting bored.
DAVE MADE A MAZE
Directed by Bill Watterson. Written by Steven Sears and Watterson. Starring Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak. At Brattle Theatre. 80 minutes. Unrated (language, sexual references, cartoon gore).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.