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‘Night on Earth’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 29, 1992

"Night on Earth" sounds better than it turns out to be. Starting at dusk in Los Angeles, Jim Jarmusch's eastward-ho comedy follows the overnight travails of cabbies -- and their passengers -- in New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. Things are funny in the Big Apple, but the journey gets progressively jet lagged. By the time you reach the Finnish capital, you beg for dawn.

Even in his poorest work (i.e., this movie), director Jarmusch retains an appealing sense of experimentation. He fills his movies with those clumsy, unhurried moments between people. But in "Night on Earth," with five vignettes to get through, he's forced to create faster, more sketchlike pieces. He's just not up to the task. Nor do performers Winona Ryder, Isaach De Bankole, Roberto Benigni and others pick up the improvisational ball.

In L. A., cabbie Ryder plays a gum-clacking, chain-smoking, grimy tomboy with sophomoric abandon. Rather than demonstrate intuitive prowess, she airs her shortcomings. As the phone-toting casting agent who suddenly thinks Ryder might have something, passenger Gena Rowlands is far more interesting.

The best section (in New York) features East German driver Armin Mueller-Stahl and appalled passenger Giancarlo Esposito. Mueller-Stahl's car constantly lurches because the immigrant can't figure out the foot pedals. So an exasperated Esposito offers to drive. On the long ride to Brooklyn, manic Esposito is amused at the European's name ("Helmut"), only to have his own moniker ("Yo-Yo") ridiculed in return. On the way, Esposito picks up bickery partner Rosie Perez and the trip becomes an amusing, three-way screaming match.

The comedy wanes rapidly over the Atlantic, however. Driver De Bankole, the mystical African houseboy in "Chocolat," glowers unamusingly throughout his Paris route. Jarmusch creates a cheesy "Patch of Blue" relationship between the Ivory Coast conducteur and blind customer Beatrice Dalle (of "Betty Blue" fame).

Italian driver Benigni, stellar in Jarmusch's "Down by Law," makes you wish you'd never stopped in Rome. In a monotonous near-monologue, he gives a long-winded confession to the priest behind him, blithely unaware that the padre's rapidly dying. As for the Helsinki section, a deadpan effort among well-known Finnish performers Matti Pellonpaa, Kari Vaananen and Sakari Kuosmanen, it's the dullest ride of all.

The sense of enjoyment at seeing strangers bump into -- and have to deal with -- other strangers is missing here. It feels like a tired exercise unto itself. Jarmusch has stated that one of his aims is to include in his movies what others would exclude. As "Night on Earth" demonstrates, that approach doesn't always ensure success.

Copyright The Washington Post

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