Night on Earth from Jarmusch

No less bleak than Jarmusch’s earlier films, though even more episodic, “Night on Earth” is composed of five stories, set in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki, always maintaining an alien’s distance.

Revisiting his interest in oblique comedy, Jarmusch explores a primal urban relationship, that of a passenger and taxi driver. The cab is a temporarily shared world, from which one of the parties may emerge shaken up or feeling differently about himself/herself.

This serio comedy is not so much a departure from earlier work as a refinement of his usual turf. Once again, his central focus is culture collision. Based on a rigorous, if also arch, structure, the film comprises five different encounters between cabbies and their passengers, all taking place on the same night. As always, there is little by way of conventional plot–merely confrontations that permit the development of Jarmusch’s trademark deadpan humor.

Jarmusch’s talent has always resided in locating the weird and mysterious among the mundane, highlighting the ordinary faces of abnormality. Unfortunately, in Night on Earth, he locks the actors (and the viewers) within taxicabs, which makes the experience a long, painful ride.

The first two episodes (in L.A. and N.Y.) are the best. But most of the dialogue, and some of the acting, is forced and awkward. In Los Angeles, Winona Ryder’s gun-chomping, torturous hamming as a tough cabbie is only partly alleviated by Gena Rowland’s elegance and class as a Beverly Hills casting agent. In New York, newly arrived East German immigrant Armin Muller-Stahl takes Giancarlo Esposito to Brooklyn.

Things get worse in Paris, where an African cabbie (Isaach De Bankole), angry about being stereotyped by passengers, cops the same attitude with a blind fare (Beatrice Dalle). Italy, with Roberto Benigni endlessly circling his car and revving his mouth, gives a few laughs, but the monologue runs out of steam (or is it gas) And the Helsinki segment, in trying to provoke tears, elicits more relief since it’s the last ride in Jarmusch’s long pseudo-existential journey into the night.

Jarmusch steers his sensibility in a more accessible direction, showing signs of eagerness to please, or at least not alienate, his viewers. However, five rides in five cities with five taxi drivers, all rendering the hrase “Across town, please,” may be too much.
“Night on Earth” tries but fails to transform the commonplace into a haunting, mysterious experience.