I used to think that coffee and cigarettes was the national anesthetic. Back
in those days, my poison was wine and dinner. Today, the use of cigarettes is
so diminished and so widely frowned upon ("Don't muck up my air, you
thoughtless goon"), you'd think bad boy writer-director Jim Jarmusch ("Night
on Earth", "Down by Law") would find another theme to repeat. But he
doesn't, and in this fourth use of the title (1986-2003) he unleashes his
black and white extreme low budget aesthetic on a new and repeating
combination of still smokin' actors and performers.
They are more or less convincing in their use of the tar-filled props, but
it's clearer than the air around their table that this is just a way of
creating a theatre experience for his legions of fans who think he can do no
wrong. What we get is a series of talk scenes out of an improv showcase that
features a cast that one guesses are Jarmusch pals, some of whom need work
and/or exposure (and some who clearly don't).
The scenes vary from barely endurable to flashes of taste, with little to no
drama to sweeten the mostly bland brew. The props and settings common to
each little scene cements the changes of subject and characters into a
visionary whole, but not a particularly cohesive or illuminating one. As a
vision it attains little; as a concept it's nearly unjustifiable. But, like
said, there are flashes.
After aimlessness with Benigni and Waits, a binary appearance by Cate
Blanchett shows us what the term "screen star" means. Out of a milieu of
talky randomness comes her scene as a hugely successful executive handing out
kindness and gifts to herself as her loser and ne'er-do-well sister, with
convincing makeup and wardrobe to match. All right, no lie, the audition
reel is tops and I definitely want her for my next picture.
Old reliable Bill Murray is good for a laugh or two during his moment in
Jarmusch's wall sconce; Benigni can't find a key to comedy; Waits stretches
while waiting for a laugh to come; Buscemi is, at least, self-assured, and
the winning thematic moment goes to a wry industry observation vignette with
Which brings me back to my initial reminiscence of the days before legal
disclosures appeared on the sides of cigarette packs and began the process of
tearing down profit potential for tobacco companies, when the title combo had
the psychological potency to calm the nerves of an anxious nation. That gone
for most of us, Jim Jarmusch's latest film pastiche will induce a level of
boredom that could produce the same effect. It's not likely to inspire a
revival in black and white filmmaking but we hope this exercise in creative
restlessness gets him some real work.
~~ The Filmiliar Cineaste