At once artless and artful, dramatically unfocused yet layered throughout with unmistakable observations about mid-'80s American melancholia, Stranger Than Paradise displays all the strengths and weaknesses of Jarmusch's brand of cinema. While experiencing his stories, the viewer may suspect that, beneath the patina of captivating movie moments, the director has nothing particularly to say about, well, anything, but is simply creating images because he feels like it, and stringing them together with vintage jazz, rock, and world music selections. Just short of expressing any sense of purpose or point of view, at least conventionally speaking, a Jarmusch movie will peter out. The characters do not advance much, though each will have embarked on journeys, and shared moments of wry hilarity. But, spiritually, they remain near or exactly where they began.
This narrative inertness can make Jarmusch's stories frustrating (Broken Flowers is a case in point), yet their incidental qualities usually more than compensate. From Stranger than Paradise and Mystery Train to Ghost Dog and Dead Man, there is an undeniable appeal in Jarmusch's cinema, stemming from any one of various sources, from the deadpan performances and the carefully crafted soundtrack, to the visuals themselves which often convey an outsider's dislocation in an alien, starkly ordinary American landscape.
The charms of Stranger than Paradise still sparkle after more than two decades. The movie's slacker vibe has not aged a bit, and its gently ironic humor seems more at home now -- in an age when everything is doused with irony -- than it perhaps did in 1984. The story unfolds across a series of single-take vignettes, in which Willie (John Lurie), a surly and shiftless hipster, living in a drab New York apartment, reluctantly takes in his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) after she emigrates from her native Budapest to the States. Willie's (only) friend, the amiable Eddie (Richard Edson) takes a shine to Eva, before the latter takes off to stay with her Auntie Lotte in Cleveland. A year later, flush with loot from a poker game in which they cheated, Willie and Eddie drive out to visit Eva only to find Cleveland's wintry desolation a major letdown. The trio then makes for an anonymous corner of sunny Florida where their paths suddenly and unexpectedly veer apart from one another.
Throughout, Willie cajoles and bullies his companions -- he's selfish to the bone -- while the well-meaning Eddie and the feisty Eva, for all their objections, go along, if only to alleviate their boredom. Boredom and loneliness are ever-present in this Paradise, an absolute lack of goals or potential that makes Willie, Eddie, and Eva's experience of America so disturbingly bleak. Theirs is an America of featureless cities and plains, rundown apartments and hotel rooms, donut joints, and highways that lead to nowhere in particular. There is hope for better times ahead. But before luck has the chance to turn, human nature intervenes, and it's back to square one for these restless, listless misfits.
Stranger than Paradise never digs deep enough to mine the possible riches in its characters and its stories of journeying towards a distinctly American, ever-elusive happiness. What it does provide, however, is something too low-key to articulate -- sounds and images that take root subliminally, leaving us amused, our hearts unsettled. John Lurie's ominous, deceptively simple score, complemented by the recurring use of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' roaring rendition of "I Put a Spell On You," perfectly keep things off-kilter from beginning to end. Paradise is the American Dream inverted, that its characters are carefree is a by-product not of sharing in the Dream, but of dealing with life on the margins.
Criterion (now on spine number 400) issues Paradise along with the entirety of Jarmusch's first feature film, 1975's Permanent Vacation, a 1984 interview with the cast and crew, and a short behind the scenes featurette by Tom Jarmusch.
Run time: 89 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th November 1984
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 19 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Producer: Sara Driver
Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie as Willie, Eszter Balint as Eva, Richard Edson as Eddy, Cecillia Stark as Aunt Lotte, Danny Rosen as Billy, Rammellzee as Man with money, Tom DiCillo as Airline Agent, Richard Boes as Factory Worker, Rockets Redglare as Poker player, Harvey Perr as Poker player
Also starring: Jim Jarmusch
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