Night On Earth
1991 Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Starring Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 22, 1992
Migratory souls in the dead of night... these are Jarmusch's people, his drawing card. In films like Mystery Train, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch has essayed his brand of offbeat, hip existentialism punctuated by minimalist narrative tactics and a quirky, comic edge. Sometimes it works better than other times. The disappointing Night on Earth is an example of the latter. Divided into five sections, the movie is a series of vignettes linked by their common content of a brief, impressionistic relationship between a taxi driver and the cab passenger as they “share the space of the cab interior, suspended between fixed destinations.” Each vignette takes place in a different city, supposedly in overlapping moments in time. To accomplish this illusion, Jarmusch begins the first one in Los Angeles at sunset, then moves successively to New York, Paris, Rome and finally, Helsinki, ending the movie just as the sun is rising. Appropriately, Night on Earth also engages frequent Jarmusch collaborator, Tom Waits (Down By Law, Mystery Train), to compose and perform the gravel-tongued, night-parade music that links the five vignettes. But the premise and the narrative device is really all that links these discrete episodes; they have little thematic unity or accumulated sum. Certainly, they are not uninteresting to watch but neither are they compelling. Surely, a 15-20 minute-long vignette featuring the amazing talents of Gena Rowlands as an L.A. casting agent and Winona Ryder as the tomboy cabbie who only aspires to mechanic-hood should have an intrinsic fascination based solely on the sparks generated by these two brilliant actresses. Though the sequence generates a warm glow, it never really cooks -- in fact, it comes to a finish just when you hope that it might actually take off. The other vignettes inspire varying degrees of interest and range from comic to dramatic to slice-of-life. But none of them feels very substantial and the only one that lingers memorably is the Parisian episode between the self-contained cabdriver from the Ivory Coast (Bankolé) and the independent blind woman (Dalle) he transports. All the others feel slight and rather inconsequential. Though mildly interesting for their individual merits, there is little sense of their connection to each other as a film and to us as an audience. It's as though this cab ride of a movie keeps moving forward with no clear destination or purpose.