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‘Leningrad Cowboys Go America’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 30, 1991

Watching Aki Kaurismaki's surreally deadpan comedy "Lenigrad Cowboys Go America," you get the feeling that the Finnish writer-director would rather die than crack a smile. This is both a sign of cool and an expression of comic principles. Kaurismaki's gags aren't designed to make us laugh; that would require far too much comic energy. His movies are wildly farcical, but their rhythms are glacial and they are suffused with a quality of weightless melancholy. The gags float into your head, and when they register, there's no release, no kick. They're meant to make you nod, slowly, in recognition. Or perhaps blink.

Not that his subjects are subdued. The featured players here -- the Leningrad Cowboys -- are a band from somewhere in the vast nowhere of Finland. Their sound is standard Finnish folk; their look is another matter altogether and in no way standard. Let's start with the hair. Imagine a '60s-style black beehive that's been cracked forward from behind by a stiff wind so that it juts out over the forehead like the prow of a ship.

The oddest thing about this hair is that it isn't simply a show-biz affectation; everyone wears his hair this way, even the dog and the tiny infant sleeping in its cradle. The band's outfits, particularly their shoes -- which are like shiny black leather fairy slippers that curl up at the ends into two-foot-long points -- and their straight-arrow dark suits and ties, may be a more conscious attempt to cultivate a "look."

The picture begins with an audition for an agent, who tells the group's manager (Matti Pellonpaa) they might have better luck in America. "They'll put up with anything there," he says. Taking him at his word, the bunch packs up their gear -- including the coffin containing their bass player, who's frozen solid from a night out on the tundra -- and heads for New York, where a booker sees them headlining at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium but can only manage to get them a gig playing for his cousin's wedding in Mexico. To get there, they buy a second-hand Cadillac -- from director Jim Jarmusch, who cameos as a used-car salesman -- strap the coffin and drums on the roofs, stuff a couple of armchairs in the trunk (for the band members who can't fit inside) and hit the road.

The remainder of the film is dedicated to the band's misadventures in the American South. Skipping from town to town, playing for small change in sleazy dives, existing primarily on a diet of beer and raw onions, the boys, who favor wraparound shades and rarely change expression -- think of the patients in "Awakenings" before L-dopa -- work their way through Dixie. Though hopelessly thick, they are nothing if not willing. Told that rock-and-roll is what sells, they transform themselves into a rock band; later, when country music is called for, they throw themselves wholeheartedly into their "yee haws."

Kaurismaki himself is not nearly so versatile. While it's something of a feat to sustain the movie's blank meter, you keep hoping for some variation in its low kilowattage, some break in the affectless monotony. Kaurismaki is a droll master of the off-speed punch line, and what's genuinely delightful is his way of tossing ideas at us from unexpected angles. But though a great many of the jokes are funny, too many of them hit the same spot on the target, and just as many trail off without hitting anything at all. Also, his observations about the America of cheap joints and forgotten towns is hopelessly generic; nothing is freshly seen. As compensation, we're given Kaurismaki's patented brand of hip irony. And in this case, it's like taking the gas.

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