Stranger Than Paradise
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson
There is no doubt in my mind that had it not been for the work of Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s, the world of independent cinema would not have exploded so fully into mainstream consciousness in the 1990s. Stranger Than Paradise is independent film before it was called independent film and Jarmusch’s first feature. Clearly shot on a shoestring budget, clearly mostly improvised, with only the vaguest of storylines tying everything together, Stranger Than Paradise is a movie that’s easy to appreciate for its sheer gumption, but a bit of a black hole to watch.
Willie (Lurie) is an unemployed hipster slacker living in New York who gets paid an unwelcome visit by his sixteen-year-old cousin Eva (Balint) visiting from Hungary. She has to stay at his place for ten days because of an aunt who’s in the hospital, during which time she meets his friend Eddie (Edson), who is just like Willie, and bickers with Willie every chance she gets. Eva then goes out to Cleveland to stay with family, and eventually, Willie and Eddie decide to take a road trip to visit her. Adrift, Willie and Eddie then decide to take a road trip to Florida and take Eva with them.
The best part of Stranger Than Paradise is the character of Eva and how she interacts with Willie and Eddie. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Willie and Eddie embody the notion of “adrift,” as they have no job and seem perfectly content to while away their days eating TV dinners and playing card games. Eva, on the other hand, is an undercover spitfire. Willie assumes he’ll be able to walk all over her while she is forced to stay at his apartment, but when it turns out she has a backbone, he is cowed. When she shoplifts food and cigarettes for him, he is impressed against his will. Willie insults her music, and she tells him to “bugger off.” She can see who Willie is as clear as the light of day; in fact, much of her time onscreen is spent looking around, her eyes constantly wandering, taking in her surroundings but also deducing what those surroundings mean. She likes Willie because he is her cousin and because he is eventually kind to her, but she can also see his stupor. She is not always free from the same sort of rut that Willie and Eddie live in, but she is at least entirely aware that she is in a rut and is willing to take steps to get out of it. Eva is kind, biting, sharp, and funny.
Willie and Eddie eventually become likeable because of their attitude towards Eva. Clearly annoyed at the outset, it’s actually phenomenally sweet watching both Willie and Eddie take a slow shine to Eva. When Eva leaves the first time, there is a clear sense of vacuum in Willie’s apartment. The two men look at each other with wide-eyed wonder, as if saying, “Well what are we going to do now?” Although Willie and Eddie never wholly break free of their soporific lifestyle, the only bright spot they have is the prospect of visiting Eva and they know it. It’s probably the smartest thing they’ve ever done, seeking out her company. Were it not for their attitude towards Eva, Willie and Eddie would be entirely unlikeable characters; their only redeeming quality is that they at least know how to latch onto a good thing, a good person, when she comes across their path.
The film’s three acts coincide with the three places the trio visit: New York, Cleveland, and Florida. But Jarmusch is careful to never really show any of these places. The only thing that sets Cleveland apart from the other two places is the snow, and Florida is distinguished only by the beach. We never see anything that looks like “classic New York.” In fact, most of the film is shot in interiors, in drab motel rooms or grimy apartments, depressing living rooms that close in on you from all angles. The only exterior shots we get could not be more nondescript, to the point of having to take Jarmusch’s word for it that yes, this indeed is Cleveland, because it might as well be Budapest as Eddie says. The bland interiors and indistinguishable exteriors are external manifestations of Willie and Eddie’s meandering life. They travel but do not see; they live, but not meaningfully. They move from playing card games in New York to playing card games in Cleveland to playing card games in Florida. One place is just as good as another – what does it matter in the end?
There is a very subtle humor in Stranger Than Paradise which, when it occasionally rears it head, I quite liked. Little touches, like Eva’s date trying to impress her by taking her to an art movie and then she says she’d rather see a kung fu movie, or Eva saying on the phone, “I’m his cousin… No, I’m really his cousin,” at Willie’s apartment, or the drug dealer/gang member mistaking Eva for a drop, help lift up the film from the banality of its characters’ existences.
Ultimately, though, Stranger Than Paradise feels like a first film. Its incredibly low production values show in nearly every scene. The uncomfortable silences betray uncomfortable ad-libbed lines. The acting is a bit stilted and forced. There are long stretches where nothing happens – and I do mean NOTHING happens. Coming in at just under 90 minutes, it still feels long because crap, it’s a bit tedious. Watching Willie try to tell Eva a joke but forgetting it halfway through sums up most of the movie to me: awkward as all get out to witness. It both feels like and looks like an independent film made for next to nothing.
There is stuff to like here; Stranger Than Paradise most definitely has a heart, but it takes a bit of prodding and contemplation to uncover it. On the surface, it is just as vapid and detached as its main characters. Under the surface, there is more connection, but you have to look past a lot of boring detritus to get there.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10