MOVIE REVIEW : Jarmusch's 'Night on Earth' Slight but Affecting Taxi Ride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Night on Earth" (selected theaters), Jim Jarmusch gives us five different, self-contained episodes in five taxis in five cities on one night. The episodic structure breaks up Jarmusch's usual funky minimalism: It makes it less of a drag.

Episodic movies usually don't work; we seem to settle into a story just when it ends and we're thrust into the next one. But Jarmusch's film (rated R for language and sensuality) may be a special case. Unbroken, his vague, meandering scenarios have sometimes dawdled into oblivion. But here, as in his last film, "Mystery Train," the anomie is at least given some variation. If you don't like a particular story, it won't be long before it fades into the next.

The film's conceit is that a taxi ride is in itself an episodic, self-contained experience for both taxi driver and passenger. It's a moment of enforced intimacy, a suspension of routine between fixed locations. The first section begins in Los Angeles as the sun is setting and moves on to New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki, as the sun rises. This sounds overly schematic and precious but Jarmusch doesn't push the existential symbolism. His film has a gentle ease; his favorite stylistic device--long, gliding tracking shots through neighborhood streets--seems particularly apt in this setting. The deliberate, even rhythms give the brief stories an almost fated quality.

What this means is that although the episodes are highly variable in quality, there's a unity of mood--a forlornness--that links them. In the first story, a high-powered casting agent (Gena Rowlands) is driven to her Beverly Hills manse by a gum-popping cabbie (Winona Ryder). In the next one, a black man (Giancarlo Esposito) in Manhattan finally flags down a cab driver (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who is willing to take him to Brooklyn. The Parisian sequence has a cab driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankole) kicking two condescending black diplomats out of his taxi and then picking up a surly, blind Frenchwoman (Beatrice Dalle). Roberto Benigni plays an excessively talkative Roman cab driver who picks up a priest who longs for some piece and quiet. The cabbie in the Helsinki episode reduces his drunken passengers to sobs when he reveals to them a personal tragedy.

The L.A. episode is probably the least successful. Both Rowlands and Ryder are a bit too actorish for Jarmusch's methods; Ryder's gamine ragamuffin bit is particularly dubious. It's also the most O. Henry-like of the episodes, and the contrivance doesn't quite mesh with Jarmusch's funky mysteriousness.

The Rome section doesn't really work, either, perhaps because Benigni's motor-mouth routine quickly runs down. He's so obviously a comic actor doing an improvisation that the movie turns into his personal showcase. He's not enough of a personality to sustain the feat.

The Paris episode has something going on it, though. The Ivory Coast cabbie is resentful of the put-downs of the diplomats but he's fascinated by the blind woman's fierce independence. Jarmusch sustains a slight astringency of tone that keeps the section from wafting into "A Patch of Blue" territory.

The Helsinki story begins unpromisingly--the cabbie picks up three drunken louts--but it turns out the louts are softies and the driver's tale of woe is genuinely moving.

The best episode is the one set in New York, perhaps because it captures the kind of seeming improbabilities that crop up regularly in the city. Esposito's Yo-Yo is volatile but unthreatening; he just wants to get back to Brooklyn, and his exasperation at the cab situation has unhinged him. His cabbie, Mueller-Stahl's Helmut, is so incompetent that Yo-Yo ends up driving the cab. Helmut was a clown in Germany, and his sweet-tempered clownishness is tonic in the New York grunge.

En route, Yo-Yo spots his sister-in-law, played by Rosie Perez, and hauls her kicking and screaming into the back seat. Perez, who was so gloriously spit-fired in "White Men Can't Jump," is tonic in her own way. She's the spirit of the streets, and she can belt out obscene epithets with a comic force that leaves you dazed--except that you're laughing so hard.

She's the heroine of her episode. In fact, she's the heroine of the entire movie.

'Night on Earth'

Winona Ryder: Corky

Gena Rowlands: Victoria Snelling

Rosie Perez: Angela

A JVC Presentation of a Locus Solus Production, released by Fine Line Features. Director Jim Jarmusch. Producer Jim Jarmusch. Executive producer Jim Stark. Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Music Tom Waits. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language and sensuality).

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