Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘Night on Earth’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 29, 1992

Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth" is a collection of five sketches set simultaneously in five different cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Helsinki -- during the same evening. Jarmusch calls the film a "comedy in five sections" with each "focusing on the brief relationship between a taxi driver and his/her passenger(s) ... sharing the space of a car interior, suspended between fixed destinations."

It's a lovely idea, and if the individual sections of the film were more substantial, or if we sensed some connection between them, some governing principle, it might have resulted in a delicate, poetically funny movie. Unfortunately, Jarmusch's lackadaisical minimalist aesthetic and his chronic lack of energy are the only unifying elements.

Jarmusch has stated that the "beauty of life is in small details, not in big events" -- an easy enough statement to agree with -- but as a chronicler of the trivial and commonplace, he is singularly inattentive. The small details he captures aren't particularly beautiful or telling or distinctive; they're merely small. Nor do they feel particularly anchored in life. Instead, they appear to be exactly what they are -- scenes from a movie -- but with all the weight and dramatic push drained off.

Jarmusch's style turns us into an audience of Peggy Lees; we keep asking ourselves, "Is that all there is?" When Winona Ryder picks up Gena Rowlands at the airport in Los Angeles, the sun is setting, but Jarmusch isn't particularly attuned to the personality of the city at dusk. Nor are the characters given enough time to establish a hold on us. Just as we become interested in them, the vignette is over, and they are gone.

Even though this first section is the film's most engaging -- at least we have the desire to know more -- the characters evaporate in our minds the instant they leave the screen. In the New York section, in which Armin Mueller-Stahl, as a hopelessly inept driver from Eastern Europe, gives Giancarlo Esposito a ride home to Brooklyn, the characters seem to vanish even before the segment is finished, especially after they pick up Rosie Perez, who as Esposito's sister-in-law simply reprises her performance from "White Men Can't Jump."

Remarkably, the blandness appears intentional. Jarmusch doesn't seem to be driving at anything here; he's just cruising around, hoping that the behavioral business the actors provide will sustain our interest. The segments that feature Beatrice Dalle and Isaach De Bankole in Paris and Roberto Benigni and Paolo Bonacelli in Rome are resolutely offbeat, but just as unemphatic. They just lie there.

The last vignette is set in Helsinki, and at least the cast of Finnish actors -- whose faces are familiar from "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" -- provides some laughs. But by this point our senses are already numbed from what has come before. If the picture is designed to open our eyes to the hidden miracles of everyday life, it fails miserably. You get the feeling that Jarmusch is simply too hip to be impressed; his concept of cool is like a pair of shades -- it lays a dulling filter over everything.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help