There are few metaphors more obvious than the homemade living-room labyrinth in Dave Made a Maze. The titular Dave (Nick Thune) is a struggling artist plagued by a lack of creative inspiration whose girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), returns home from a work trip to discover him “lost” inside a cardboard fort he has constructed in their apartment. Dave’s cheerful responses to Annie’s inquiries sound only inches away, but he insists that the maze is “bigger on the inside.” He’s right, which Annie and an assortment of Dave’s pals, including his bearded bestie (Adam Busch) and an insistent documentarian (James Urbaniak), quickly discover after they barge their way inside.
The point, then, or the joke, if you want to call it that, is about the tendency of frustrated creative types to disappear into their projects – dragging their friends and family with them. Dave Made a Maze literalises this idea with an outsized labyrinth full of passages, rooms, native predators and elaborate booby-traps, all made of cardboard and craft supplies. One of the characters succinctly analyses Dave’s problem: “He gets all fired up about stuff but never finishes anything.” The solution is obvious. For once, Dave needs to actually finish the project. He needs to complete the maze, which is complicated by it taking on a life of its own, crafting perils out of odds and ends, defying any recognisable directional or spatial logic, and going so far as to spawn a literal minotaur (played by pro-wrestling’s John Hennigan in a bull mask) to stalk the maze’s cardboard confines.
The labyrinth isn’t the only thing assembled from random building materials, either. Dave Made a Maze riffs on a fusion of genres from fantasy to comedy to horror; the styles and conventions all intertwine and undercut each other. The unambiguous magical reality of the maze is never properly explained because the characters need to be humorously detached to make the jokes work, and the characters never feel particularly imperilled because what would typically be their gory demises are depicted in confetti and red yarn. There’s a self-conscious, handmade novelty to the whole thing that likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but will almost certainly accrue a dedicated cult following.
It helps that Dave Made a Maze makes its point early on, and never really endeavours to make another, leaving the remainder of the 80-odd minutes to become all about the film’s creative idiosyncrasies and elaborate DIY effects (over 30,000 feet of scrap cardboard were purportedly used to assemble the film’s sets). Anything longer than an hour does feel like overkill for something like this, though; as clever as the conceit is, stretching it to feature-length rather quickly exposes that it isn’t all that funny or meaningful. Is it supposed to be? I couldn’t say. It’s certainly charming and unique and glibly self-satisfied, but it ends up going to a lot of trouble just to be critical of its own subject, and I can’t say it properly addresses even that.
Hey, don’t get me wrong – it’s not bad at all. The cast are all game, particularly Kumbhani in what amounts to a thankless lead role, and there’s enough visual invention served with occasional dollops of wit that it’s always watchable, at the very least. I do wish Dave had spent less time on the maze and more time making a better movie, but what can you do? At least there’s a puppet scene.