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Night on Earth

Night on Earth
Criterion 401
1991 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 128 min. / Street Date September 4, 2007 / 39.95
Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpää
Cinematography Frederick Elmes
Film Editor Jay Rabinowitz
Original Music Tom Waits
Produced, Written and Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion's DVD of Night on Earth would seem to be the first Region 1 release of this amusing 1991 comedy, one of Jim Jarmusch's most accessible films. Essentially five episodes taking place in and around taxicabs in five American and European cities, the film presents five sets of characters in free-standing skits, and allows Jarmusch to let loose a dozen or so actors in situations that range from quirky to fall-down funny. The film helped introduce American audiences to the Italian comedian Roberto Benigni, but each chapter features memorable talent. The common factor is the taxi ride, a universal experience uniting cities around the world.


Los Angeles. Casting director Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands) is taken from LAX to Beverly Hills, discovering on the way that her 19-year old cabbie Corky (Winona Ryder) would be perfect for a hard-to-fill role in a movie. Manhattan. YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) has a tough time getting a ride home to Brooklyn, and is surprised when the cab that does stop is driven by Helmut Grokenberger (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an immigrant from East Germany who used to be a clown and really doesn't know how to drive. YoYo takes over, and picks up his sister-in-law Angela (Rosie Perez) on the way. Paris. A taxi driver from the Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé) ejects two disrespectful African diplomats but becomes fascinated by a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) who overturns all of his preconceptions about blindness. Rome. A crazy taxi driver (Roberto Benigni) picks up a nervous priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and proceeds to unnerve him with an impromptu confession of outrageous sexual sins. Helsinki. Dour taxi driver Mika (Matti Pellonpää) takes three drunken factory workers home after one of them has been fired. Just when the three are feeling sorry for themselves, Mika tells them about his own, far more devastating personal tragedy.

Jim Jarmusch has a loyal and enthusiastic following, and his droll films are unified by a recognizable personal style. Night on Earth is less experimental and probably less frustrating for average audiences than some of his pictures, and it has the saving grace of occasionally being very funny, once one adjusts to the concept. The only proviso is that one needs to be prepared to spend two hours doing nothing but prowling the night in taxicabs.

Jarmusch tailors each chapter to suit a particular city, and his choices run to stereotype. Los Angeles is the land of movie dreams, New York a destination for immigrants and Paris a place where personal styles run from rude to more rude. In Rome we find a priest and in Helsinki a resigned lost soul. Expectations and attitudes clash all over the world, and in most cases somebody learns a useful lesson. Or at least, strangers in the night make meaningful, if brief, contact with one another.

Linked by a Tom Waits song, the stories are introduced with inserts of international clocks and a spinning globe. The film starts with a nice pairing of Gena Rowlands and Winona Rider. Rider's character Corky is perhaps a little overstated. She smokes, swears and would like to be a mechanic, and the understanding Victoria is surprised when an offer of potential movie stardom doesn't get the response she expects. Jarmusch lets us know that he considers each city a special character, which becomes obvious when Corky takes Victoria to Sunset & Beverly by way of locations nowhere near any realistic route.

The New York episode gives us the film's most energetic characters. Armin Mueller-Stahl's incompetent cabbie drives his taxi in hopeless little jerks, braking and accelerating at the same time. The delightful Giancarlo Esposito finds everything about Helmut funny, starting with his name. Rosie Perez' Angela initiates an expected profane scream fest, but the trio finds a moment of harmony as they cross the East River. The charm of the actors overcomes the stock characters; it's impossible not to like Mueller-Stahl when he puts on his red clown's nose or plays two flutes at the same time.

The Paris episode is the most original. Silent cabbie Isaach De Bankolé resents being patronized by a pair of well-dressed Africans, and dumps them on the street. He then picks up Béatrice Dalle's unusual blind woman. Shocked that she can guess his specific nationality, Isaach wants to communicate his interest in her but keeps asking lame questions about blindness. His fare can't see, but she knows when the chosen route isn't the one she asked for, and seems to intuit a lot more than is possible.

The Rome sequence breaks with format and turns the antic motormouth Roberto Benigni loose on a one-joke gag. Benigni carries the entire episode with an unending monologue, first to himself and then to an uncomfortable priest. As they wind through the narrow streets, Benigni explains how, when he was a teenager, his sex life shifted from pumpkins to sheep.

The final episode in Helsinki edges closer to more familiar Jarmusch content. Matti Pellonpää's lonely cab seems to be the only moving object in the gloomy frozen capital. His deadpan expression never varies, as his passengers wail about boring jobs and a general hopelessness. The joke in this one is almost buried, and we're expected to find humor in the static, downbeat ending.

Criterion's DVD of Night on Earth will please insomniacs, as most of its night-crawling citizens feel right at home prowling through the quiet streets of famous capitals. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes' nighttime camerawork is consistently handsome. Most of the moving car angles shoot straight on through the front windshield. With the constant parade of new faces to watch, the minimalist style doesn't offend.

Disc producer Susan Arosteguy's extras are also unusual. The commentary track is shared by Elmes and audio man Drew Kunin and covers only selected scenes. Jarmusch is seen in a 1992 Belgian TV interview and in a separate audio interview answers a series of fan inquiries. The critical comment comes in the fat insert booklet, where Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi and Peter von Bagh take one episode each in turn. Each assures us that Jarmusch has captured a special quality of the particular city and proceeds to describe what happens in minute detail. A couple of the writers were also once taxi drivers and are impressed at how well Jarmusch has captured the essence of the job.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Night on Earth rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Frederick Elmes and sound mixer Drew Kunin, Q&A with Jim Jarmusch, Belgian director interview from 1992, insert essay booklet.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 29, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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