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‘Down by Law’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 08, 1986


Jim Jarmusch
John Lurie;
Tom Waits;
Roberto Benigni;
Ellen Barkin
Under 17 restricted

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Combine thestunning success of "Stranger Than Paradise" (which was named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics in 1984) with the decision by its director, Jim Jarmusch, to make films outside the Hollywood system, and you get a lot of people rooting for him to fall on his face.

Unfortunately, with "Down by Law," Jarmusch's third film, those people get what they wanted. And yet, by hewing to Jarmusch's own very strong personal vision, this failure is far more intriguing than the successes of other, less personal directors.

The story traces the paths of three drifters living side by side in Louisiana, randomly connecting. One is an incompetent pimp (John Lurie), one an out-of-work disc jockey (Tom Waits), one an Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni). A series of frame-ups unites them, again randomly, in the same jail cell. They escape together, and life on the lam begins. "Down by Law" demonstrates, once again, Jarmusch's eclectic film style, although the mix is less rich than the one he employed in "Stranger." Quoting from old Hollywood genre films about prison (and escape from prison), the movie is magnificently photographed by the German cinematographer Robby Muller in a black-and-white that is at times so evocative and velvety you feel you can touch it, at times as otherworldly as a dream. Jarmusch often shoots from the low level of traditional Japanese cinema, and the wide-angle lenses he prefers give "Down by Law" a sense of open-endedness.

He's said that he doesn't like to tell the audience where to look, and if you don't accept that notion, you'll hate "Down by Law." But even if you do accept it, the problem is that Jarmusch here not only doesn't tell you where to look, he doesn't give you enough choices about where to look on your own. That makes the movie feel slow, but again, that's not the problem -- it's not that the movie doesn't move fast enough, it's that while it dawdles, it doesn't give you enough to dwell on.

What's missing is the nimble suggestiveness of "Stranger," the cross-cultural allusions that made it a kind of hip memory bank for a generation. "Stranger" ranged from Eastern Europe to the East Village, and while Jarmusch is up to the same thing in "Down by Law," he doesn't go as far with it. And "Stranger" was much better at building and sustaining its comic tone.

While there's a funny bit when one of Lurie's call girls chastises him about his faulty pimping technique, and another where Waits parodies FM radio, "Down by Law" is essentially a one-joke farce about a foreigner adrift in a strange land, struggling with his book of English idioms, bouncing his Italian effusiveness off his compatriots' withdrawn hipster style. Unfortunately, Jarmusch doesn't get any deeper than this; he doesn't plumb the mechanisms of mutual reliance among the three friends. They relate to each other as a disc jockey and a pimp and an Italian tourist, not as real people, so that the humor doesn't acquire any resonance.

Andhe doesn't do much to distinguish Lurie and Waits -- they're twin versions of the same brand of out-of-it, self-styled cool. Their mutual redundancy makes them seem less like people than a way to make a point, and what that point is exactly is hard to decipher. It's been said that "Down by Law" is not about hip but about the way hip insulates you from life, and you can find that in the performances -- Benigni, a comedian famous in Italy, pumps life into "Down by Law," just as Lurie's dour self-involvement sucks life out of it.

But if the point is there, it's not there in any form strong enough to sustain a fairly long movie. And if the Lurie and Waits characters are hipsters, they're also second-rate hipsters, which is quite a different thing. There's a kind of snobbism just beneath the surface of "Down by Law," a movie that isn't about the liabilities of a certain kind of attitude toward life, but about having that attitude and not being able to pull it off. You feel that these are characters who would aspire to be in a Jim Jarmusch film, and can't make it.

And the movie doesn't make it, either. Jarmusch likes to make movies that are slow and desultory and unresolved, and to beat him over the head with his vision would be unfair. In "Down by Law," he's made that kind of movie, but he's worked from the outside in. He's made a Jim Jarmusch film instead of just making a film; his self-consciousness leaves you at arm's length.

"Down by Law" is rated R and contains profanity, nudity and sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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