Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch / Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, and Richard Edson
Every once in a while, er – well, more often than care to admit, I open up my Netflix DVD mailer and find a movie that I don’t even recall having put into my queue. Such was the case when I found Stranger Than Paradise waiting for me in my mailbox last week, and I really had no idea what the movie was except that it was an early Jim Jarmusch movie. And I don’t really know all that much about Jim Jarmusch, even, except that I’ve heard some of my more pretentious indie movie snob friends drop his name here and there in the past. I did watch Broken Flowers when it showed at my local art-house theater back when I lived in Illinois, and then later picked up the DVD for $3 on a clearance rack at Ross Dress-for-Less here in California. Though I guess those choices were more informed by my love of Bill Murray than by my ill-formed opinions of Jarmusch. But anyway, I should really start talking about Stranger Than Paradise.
Probably one of first observations I should offer about this movie is that it is definitely not a movie for those who struggle with attention deficits of any kind. Not a whole lot happens in this movie, and the things that do happen don’t exactly happen fast. I am, however, willing to risk sounding like I’m praising the emperor’s wonderful new wardrobe by saying that I think this movie is certainly worth the investment. Something about the slow and quiet progression of events in the movie seems to force a sense of intimacy with the three main characters, Willie, Eva, and Eddie.
The basic plot summary of the movie is Willie, a New Yorker of Hungarian descent who desperately wants to avoid being seen as ethnic, reluctantly agrees to let his cousin Eva stay briefly with him in his tiny apartment when she comes to the US from Budapest. While there, she also meets Willie’s friend Eddie before she moves on to Ohio. Willie and Eddie, looking for something to do with themselves as their hustle in New York has gotten stale, decide to take a road trip to Ohio to visit Eva in her new surroundings. They then convince Eva to come along with them to Florida to the chagrin of Willie’s aunt. In Florida, Willie and Eddie try to make money at the horse track while Eva begrudgingly sits in the hotel room waiting for them to come back.
As I said above, the slow, quiet progression of this movie allows for a sense of intimacy with these characters that makes their situations and feelings compelling in a soft, understated manner. In the small New York apartment, Willie’s annoyance at having to take care of his cousin, and then his slow but steady transition in how he gets along with her, is quite convincing. Similarly, when he and Eddie are in Ohio enlisting Eva for the trip to Florida, it really does convey a nice feeling of being on a spontaneous road trip with friends. The ensuing events that take place in Florida – some of which seem far-fetched and outlandish – still continue with this sense of verisimilitude, which is perhaps a part of what Jarmusch is shooting for all along.
In the end, this movie – though shot in black and white – didn’t feel nearly as old as it is to this viewer. Maybe it has to do with the cutting edge vision of the indie writer/director, or maybe it’s just me. Anyone else seen this one, or Jarmusch’s other work? What are your thoughts?