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STRANGER THAN PARADISE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson, Cecillia Stark
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  September 4, 2007

“Doesn’t seem like you sleep at all.”

“Well…I have my dreams while I’m awake.”

Film ***1/2

Stranger Than Paradise is a simple film, yet nearly impossible to describe.  It’s a lightly comic, low budgeted existential romp through New York, Cleveland, and Florida with some delightfully memorable characters, yet no real story or singular driving force.

It comes from the mind of the eternally fascinating Jim Jarmusch, who, as of yet, has not made a film I haven’t liked…at least, not that I’ve seen.  He creates interesting people and places them in situations; some of which seem normal and feel heightened, others which seem heightened and feel normal. 

This movie feels like skimming through a book:  each scene starts with black, gives us anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes of information, then black again, then next scene.  Jarmusch’s deliberately eccentric if low key style makes the movie seem random, though it was actually carefully planned and choreographed.  It could have been disorienting, but viewers quickly warm to the concept, and find the strength in the characters to stay feeling familiar, despite the disjointed approach.

What is it about?  Well, there’s Willie (Lurie), a Hungarian immigrant who seemed to have spent most of his adult life losing everything that identified him as a Hungarian.  As the movie opens, he finds himself in the care of his young cousin Eva (Balint), who has come from the home country on her way to be with their Aunt Lotte (Stark) in Cleveland, but ends up in New York with Willie while the aunt convalesces. 

There’s also Willie’s friend Eddie (Edson), who seems to take an amusingly awkward liking to Eva.  Willie and Eddie like to gamble, and when they score some money by cheating in a card game, they decide to take off for Cleveland, visit the aunt and Eva who had finally gotten along, and then drive down to Florida for…well, for whatever.

For those used to more Hollywood mainstream affairs, there’s not much safety in plot here.  We’re never sure where we’re going, or for what reason, but then again, neither do the characters.  It’s their interaction, their listlessness and their boredom that generates humor and affinity, and Jarmusch is one of the few filmmakers who can actually bring all that about.

My best compliment is simply that I enjoyed spending time with them, and had the film been twice as long, I would have enjoyed it all the more.  Stranger Than Paradise is an offbeat slice of pure American life, glorious in all its rough edges and charming despite its elusiveness.

Video ***

Considering the age and the budget limitations, Criterion’s transfer, approved by Jarmusch, is quite good.  The film is a little grainy, but necessarily so, yet the print overall seems clean and bright, with good contrast levels throughout.

Audio **

The mono audio is fine…as stated, the film is low key and so is the dialogue, so dynamic range and surrounds are not required.  John Lurie, who co-starred, also provided the film’s music, apart from Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”.

Features ***

The best extra is the inclusion of Jarmusch’s debut film, Permanent Vacation.  Like Stranger Than Paradise, it’s low-budgeted, character driven and filled with spaces that almost seem empty, yet there’s a different tone overall.  It follows a young drifter and the people he encounters, and one man’s story about the Doppler effect is extremely memorable and a decidedly Jarmusch touch.  The above quote actually comes from this movie.

There is also a 1984 German documentary on Jarmusch, and features interviews with cast and crew of both films, plus a silent short look behind the scenes of Stranger Than Paradise shot by Tom Jarmusch.  There are also location scouting photos and a pair of trailers, plus a terrific booklet featuring essays and Jim Jarmusch’s own notes on the film.

Summary:

Jim Jarmusch has to be one of the most interesting American filmmakers of the late 20th century.  Kudos to Criterion for bringing us more of his early work, in a way that die hard fans and casual admirers can both enjoy.

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