Night on Earth

In a box-office world of hot sex (Basic Instinct), hot laughs (Wayne's World) and hot shots (White Men Can't Jump), the cool comic detachment of Jim Jarmusch is a bracing alternative. Jarmusch offers a hip, urban, brooding take on a pop culture closed off to feeling. In his last film, Mystery Train, the filmmaker obliquely observed foreign tourists adrift in the after-hours of Elvis-haunted Memphis. Now, in the lyrically funny and stunningly visualized Night on Earth, Jarmusch takes us on five taxi rides in five cities — Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki — over the course of a single winter night. The five stories — or puzzle pieces — are linked only by synchronicity and the scrutiny of Jarmusch, who monitors the interaction of drivers and passengers from the alien, but never hostile, perspective of a visitor from another planet.

The film begins in the stars, with the camera looking down on the first story from the darkness. It's past sunset at the L.A. airport (clocks are used throughout the movie to show the time in various countries). Corky (Winona Ryder), a gum-chewing cabdriver who wears army fatigues and layers of attitude, picks up a fare to Beverly Hills. Her passenger is Victoria (Gena Rowlands), a power-tongued casting agent who wields her cellular phone like an Uzi. The finely calibrated teamwork of Ryder and Rowlands suggests there's more at stake than a fare.

In the cocoon of the cab, the two women trade war stories. Though a generation separates them, Victoria sees star potential in the foulmouthed driver. Corky, maybe the only one in greater Los Angeles who doesn't want to make it in movies, would rather be a mechanic. The conflict drives a wedge between them.

Admirers of the director's minimalist, deadpan style in Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train may be thrown by such Jarmusch firsts as big stars, a fat (for him) budget and a grand canvas. But the joke is that Jarmusch has traveled all over the globe and put his actors on wheels only to create a still life. Abetted by the haunted bleat of Tom Waits's vocals and the spare elegance of Frederick Elmes's cinematography, Jarmusch makes the world whizzing by those taxi windows a thing of beauty and terror, but it's caught only in glimpses. More than ever, Jarmusch bypasses traditional narrative in favor of mood and stasis.

The film's formal structure emerges more clearly in the second story. In New York, Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an East German who can barely drive, picks up Yo-Yo (Giancarlo Esposito), a black Brooklynite who needs a cab home. On the way they collect Angela (Rosie Perez), Yo-Yo's outspoken sister-in-law. The culture clash is hilarious, letting Perez — the dynamo of White Men Can't Jump — add more luster to her rising star. But now there's an edge to the laughter.

By the time of the third story, set in Paris, the edge is cutting. A cabby from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Banko) questions his beautiful and blind French passenger (a fiercely funny Beatrice Dalle) and learns some hard lessons about condescending to the handicapped.

e comedy gets wilder and blacker in the fourth story, as a Roman cabby (Roberto Benigni, the convict clown of Down by Law) improvises a confession to an old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) dozing in the back seat. Jarmusch has written a marvel of a monologue for Benigni, whose comic dexterity makes it a tour de force.

the last story, set in Helsinki, the sorrow that tinges the humor in the other tales runs deep. The driver (Matti Pellonpaa) and his three drunken passengers (Kari Vanaanen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Salmela) try to laugh off their problems with jobs and families. But when despair overcomes one man left at the curb side at dawn, Jarmusch's gift for locating the poetry in displacement is movingly realized.

It's possible to criticize Night on Earth on a story-by-story basis as fast or dull or sad. It's possible but irrelevant, since the film's cumulative power is what matters, and that power is undeniable. Jarmusch is a true visionary; he knows his films can't bring order to the ravishing chaos around him, but he can't resist the fun of trying. In this compassionate comedy of missed connections, he makes us see the ordinary in fresh and pertinent ways. But the flickers of humanity in those taxis are soon dulled by barriers of time, sex, race, language and money. They are flickers in a vast emotional void. In Jarmusch's decidedly un-Disneyish view, it's not a small world after all.

From The Archives Issue 482: September 11, 1986