“Big Dreams Little Tokyo” grabs you like a pair of chopsticks snaring a California roll – liberally doused with wasabi. Director David Boyle drums with an offbeat, flavorful comic rhythm, accenting his tale of Boyd, a white male entrepreneur struggling to ingratiate himself into Asian business culture.
Boyd (played by filmmaker Boyle) is a dapper, briefcase-wielding, tie-wearing tycoon in the making. Hawking an instructional program on how to speak English, his plan is to sell these wares to Little Tokyo Asians in some unnamed American city, become a language-instructing guru, and make tons of dough. Will Boyd join Tony Robbins and Donald Trump in the pantheon of self-made motor mouths?
Perhaps. But Boyd’s “businessman” persona is a little too forced. He looks weird, like some asexual oddity from Pee Wee’s playhouse. His wide-eyed, bespectacled look resembles a Wall Street-crossing deer in headlights. His smooth baby face and full lips are oddly effeminate. Then, when Boyd speaks with a low voice and commanding enunciation, it’s an odd contrast to the harmless visual presence mouthing these words. Is this a real person?
Director Boyle is obviously attracted to the concept of human identity. What is it, exactly, that defines us as individuals? And why is it, Boyle asks, that we obsess over identities with which we often have nothing truly in common? While Boyd forces a “Japanese Businessman” front that reeks of caricature, his Japanese American roommate Jerome (Jason Watabe) gropes onto the limiting identity of “Sumo Wrestler,” often wearing a diaper to assert his chosen athletic role. Unfortunately, a Sumo academy informs Jerome that he isn’t physically massive enough to live out this goal.
Comedy ensues, as the determined Sumo wannabe engages in Olympic bouts of noodle slurping at a Japanese restaurant (run, ironically enough, by a staff of Latinos). His overarching inhalation of food culminates in a heart attack, shifting the action to the ER room of an Asian hospital.
Amidst gurneys, ailing patients, and white-garbed doctors, Boyd finds both medical intervention for his over-stuffed buddy, and the love of a perky, cute-as-a-button nurse named Mai (Rachel Morihiro). Later, “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” culminates in a knockdown, drag-out business negotiation, involving wild, multi-lingual translations between Japanese and Spanish entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, Boyle incorporates unusual, striking cinematography and editing to further accent his themes. Mai is introduced in an inspired scene – not with a mundane head shot, but with a sequence of her blue-shoed feet as she’s pushing a gurney. Weird, fish-eye lens perspectives of faces bring to mind Barry Sonnenfeld, or a kinder, gentler Stanley Kubrick.
“Big Dreams Little Tokyo” is a fresh filmic entrée, having little in common with the stinky piles of sushi permeating many of its food-filled frames (Boyle confesses that the rice ‘n seafood concoctions often went rotten by sitting on the set for too long). It’s a hybrid of comedy in the spirit of Wes Anderson and Jared Hess, celebrating the naïve charm of outsiders struggling with issues of identity and belonging.
During a recent interview, Boyle commented that his film attempted to show individual personality trumping cultural stereotypes or paradigms. By forcing themselves into niches that neither can truly embody, Boyd and Jerome are depriving the world of their own unique cultural hybrids. With “Big Dreams Little Tokyo,” perhaps the moral of the story is to stop reinventing ourselves – and take stock of who we really are.