City Nights

The final meter run takes place in Helsinki. A saturnine driver (Matti Pellonpaa) picks up three drunks. As they near their destination, the drunks and their problems are brought into almost lucid perspective as the driver recounts the tragedy of his baby daughter's death. The drunks embrace him, and he takes off as the sun begins to rise. An uncertain, but somehow appropriate, end for the film - multiple contradictions being typical Jarmuschian aesthetic ends.

The performances are variable: Winona Ryder's gum-chewing and chain-smoking are much too excessive, while Rowlands, beautiful as always, is both measured and magnetic in a small role. In New York, Armin Mueller-Stahl is so inside his character, and so poignant, we want more of him and are equally glad we don't get it. (It's reminiscent of Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train, where just laying eyes on his red-suited hotel concierge was enough.) Esposito and Perez, Spike Lee regulars, act up a storm but get away with it. The Paris sequence, the most atmospherically lit and performed of the five, is distinguished by de Bankole's charismatic face and knowing expression. Benigni and Bonacelli are masterful, economic comics in the Roman travelogue - each progressive confession is timed as precisely as a bank robbery. The Helsinki ending lacks tension, though.

What is the meaning of this film, and what, if anything, ties the cross-continental taxi journeys together? Nothing more (and Jarmusch would perhaps point out, nothing less) than a fundamental humanity able to cross language and culture barriers. As much as anything else, Jarmusch looks to delineate complexities of modern world - and bond them, too, - and reach a point of symbiosis the Germans call Zeitgeist. It's an ambitious project, and viewed thus, these delicately comic portraits do come together. The director's legerdemain in conveying anxiety and mirth in urban America is no less impressive than his handling of French, Italian, and Nordic humor.

Night on Earth is not his best film, a distinction still held by Stranger than Paradise (with Mystery Train coming in a close second). But, all the same, Jarmusch's feat of aerial poise, engaging and confounding us in roughly equal proportions, remains a wonderful thing to experience as the meter ticks around the globe one winter night.

NIGHT ON EARTH
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; with Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, and Matti Pellonpaa.

Rated R.
Opens Friday.

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