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MOVIE REVIEWS : Comedy Jarmusch-Style: Slow Be It

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With their deadpan, going-nowhere-slow style, Jim Jarmusch’s movies can be seen as little commentaries on the inertia that often swamps our lives. Or you can throw out any such big-brained thoughts and simply enjoy them as gritty comedies played in the lowest key possible.

Whatever the case, two of his best--”Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law”--are being shown tonight at Cal State Fullerton. Admission will be free.

When “Stranger Than Paradise” was released in 1984, nobody knew much about Jarmusch. He seemed to have come out of the blue (in fact, he’d come from his native Ohio) with his strange, understated black-and-white film. Eventually it created a gale of interest, going on to win several prizes at festivals minor and major, including Cannes, where it took the Camera d’Or as Best First Film.

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It’s a misadventure of the most minimalist kind. Shot with the energy of a somnambulist and featuring performances by actors who make some corpses look lively, “Stranger Than Paradise” is a curiously comical gaze at events that barely fill a few days with three seemingly less-than-ordinary people.

The movie begins when Eva (Eszter Balint) arrives at her cousin Willie’s (John Lurie) dingy New York apartment. She is from Budapest and has brought little baggage but large preconceptions of America. She soon discovers that life is just as tedious in the States as it had been back home.

Things pick up some when Eddie (Richard Edson) shows up and they all go on the road, meet a few lost relatives and take a side trip to the racetrack. The details, especially Jarmusch’s perfectly pitched dialogue, are what keep you laughing and nodding in recognition.

“Down by Law” (1986) is a bit more animated, but not much. For his follow-up to “Stranger,” Jarmusch matched up three guys in a jail cell, let them slip and slide through an escape, and then stuck them in a Louisiana bog.

The picture (also shot in black-and-white) isn’t as satisfying as “Stranger”--Jarmusch loses his balance now and then as he tries to duplicate the offbeat touch of the earlier work while developing new paths for his cinematic style--but it’s still more interesting than most American movies. And as the trio, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni and Lurie have just the right on-the-fringe rapport you expect in a Jim Jarmusch picture.

* “Stranger Than Paradise” will be shown at 8 and “Down by Law” at 10 tonight in the Titan Theatre at Cal State Fullerton’s University Center, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Free. (714) 773-3501.

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