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‘Mystery Train’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 02, 1990

"Mystery Train" is Jim Jarmusch's fourth feature film, and the fourth showcase for his impeccable, ultraglide cool. Set in Memphis -- home of "The King" -- it presents three interconnecting narratives told in short story form and, watching it, you feel as if the tales themselves are utterly dispensable, that the characters are merely props and the action gratuitous. If there is a rationale for what takes place on-screen, it's not evident. Things happen, and nothing means anything.

The film is Jarmusch's least engaging, and the first in which his bohemian posturing actually becomes an irritant. In "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down by Law," he seemed to possess a nearly bottomless supply of chic whimsy. (In "Permanent Vacation," his first feature, the only tal- ent he demonstrated was for collecting egregiously untalented actors.) If you were feeling generous, you could call Jarmusch a slapstick minimalist. It was possible, at least in those earlier films, to be impressed by the bone-dry wit behind the images, by the zonked-out comedy that he squeezed out of his characters' affectlessness.

But "Mystery Train" is little more than an extremely skinny elucidation of Jarmusch's pseudo-beat pretentions. On its own stripped-down, under-populated terms, each tale is self-contained. Each has its teeny-weeny observations about Memphis in particular and America in general, each has its stock of droll business, each its tidy beginning, middle and end.

The connective tissue for all three stories is Elvis -- or the idea of Elvis. He's the film's absent spiritual center. In the first of the three, a couple of cute kids from Yokohama named Jun and Mitzuko (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) arrive in Memphis by train on a kind of religious pilgrimage to those meccas of American rock-and-roll, Graceland and Sun Records.

Jarmusch manages some lovely little gags in this opening section. Lugging their suitcase between them on a bamboo rod, the couple lumber adorably through the deserted streets of the town, past boarded-up shops and movie theaters, until quite by accident, they stumble onto the studios at Sun Records. Stepping inside this endearingly dinky storefront operation, the out-of-towners join a tour given by a local girl who speaks in a lickety-split dialect that even Americans would find impenetrable. All the while Mitzuko -- wearing lipstick that makes her look as if she'd been swigging milk of magnesia straight out of the bottle -- stares open-jawed in amazement.

It's due largely to the fanciful charms of these two Japanese performers that this section stands out from the other two. As Mitzuko, Kudoh is like a kindergartner on a field trip, all agog over the off-kilter quaintness of American life. The sour-faced Jun, on the other hand, isn't much impressed. He likes the train station in Yokohama better than the dilapidated one in Memphis. Plus he prefers Carl Perkins to Elvis Presley. And a scene in which Mitzuko tries to make him crack a smile by applying the reddest of red lipsticks and kissing him passionately until they both look like candy-smeared toddlers is the movie's sprightliest sequence.

There's always the possibility, of course, that Jun is merely too cool to allow himself any genuine enthusiasm. In this, he is identical to his creator. Cool -- of the downtown-New York-Eurotrash-art-world-black-leather-and-sunglasses variety -- is Jarmusch's one true subject. But it's his trap as well. In "Mystery Train," he directs like a man who won't venture out for fear that the wind will mess up his hair. His style is essentially a vanity platform; it's Jarmusch's method of claiming the lofty status of artist without having the prerequisite of genuine talent.

Jarmusch has said that Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" influenced him in designing the film's structure, and by way of homage, he has his characters travel down Chaucer Street. But however clever this may be, what exactly does it mean? "Canterbury Tales" was actually about something. "Mystery Train" isn't.

The overlapping of the three narratives here is merely a device. If a synergistic effect was what Jarmusch aimed for, he missed it. Instead, all that's gained is a quality of tricked-up literary archness. In the second section, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), an Italian woman who's in Memphis to claim the body of her dead husband, is delayed by her airline and is forced to sleep over at a flophouse, where she's visited by the ghost of Elvis (who's as polite as always). Sharing her room is a hapless young woman (Elizabeth Bracco) with a motor mouth and no money who's trying to run away from her no-account boyfriend, Johnny (Joe Strummer), who gets obstreperously drunk in Part 3.

By the end of the night, everybody -- including Charlie and Will (Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles), the boyfriend's partners in mischief -- winds up at a broken-down flophouse called the Arcade, whose ever-tolerant night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) dresses in a retina-scorching red suit. Once you've caught on to the gimmick, though, all that's left for you is the dim anticipation of how these lives will intersect. But they never do -- not really. Jarmusch covers himself in interviews by stating that he prefers the realism of an open-ended finale to a resolution that is artificially imposed. But the ending he stages isn't an ending at all. The movie merely peters out, just as the three separate narratives did. Visually, the film is arresting; Robby Mueller's images have a low-energy vibrancy. But Jarmusch won't come out of himself. He's got juice, but only enough for doodling. He's too hip to live.

"Mystery Train" is rated R for some incidental sexiness, one assumes, and rough language.

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