Night on Earth
Criterion // R // $39.95 // April 9, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 22, 2019
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One of writer-director Jim Jarmusch's most accessible, entertaining features, Night on Earth (1991) serves as a good introduction to the uniquely independent filmmaker. The unusual premise divides his 129-minute film into five vignettes, all set during the same evening aboard taxicabs in five different cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. The tone and characters of each segment is different from the others. As with all anthology films, some segments play better than others: I hadn't seen Night on Earth since its initial release yet, nearly 30 years later, the one segment I didn't care for at all then I still don't like, while those I did still hold up well, and in some ways are even more impressive viewed in today's moviemaking climate.

In Los Angeles, Hollywood talent agent Victoria (Gena Rowlands) arrives at LAX by private jet, and sheepishly accepts a cab ride to her Beverly Hills home from Corky (Winona Ryder), a grubby, chain-smoking tomboy, with big (?) dreams of becoming a mechanic someday like her brothers. Victoria is at first put off by Corky's outrageously messy and cluttered taxi and her coarse manner, but then has an epiphany: Corky may be exactly right for the starring part in a big movie about to go into production.

In New York, African-American YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) unsuccessfully tries hailing a cab near Times Square, but eventually a herky-jerky taxi pulls over, driven by friendly East German immigrant Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Fresh off the boat, Helmet can barely drive and has no idea how to get to Brooklyn, Yoyo's destination. Concerned for his safety, YoYo insists that he drive the taxi, and Helmet obliges. Along the way, they pick up YoYo's wayward sister-in-law, foul-mouthed Angela (Rosie Perez), whose stream of obscenities Helmet finds most amusing.

In Paris, a taxi driver (Isaach De Bankolé) originally from the Ivory Coast dumps two drunken African diplomats after they personally insult him, and soon after picks up an abrasive blind woman (Béatrice Dalle). He's curious about her blindness, but her responses are curt and dismissive.

In Rome, garrulous cabbie Gino (Roberto Benigni) insists on confessing to a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) despite the inappropriate setting. Gino rambles on-and-on about his bizarre sexual proclivities, unaware that his put-upon passenger in the back is suffering a fatal heart attack.

In Helsinki, driver Mika (Matti Pellonpää) picks up three drunk men (Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) just before dawn. One of the three has barely survived a comically awful day - fired from job, totaled new car, wife divorcing him, teenage daughter pregnant - but then Mika has a story of his own, one far more tragic.

The first segment, with Ryder and Rowlands, is by far the weakest. Jarmusch reportedly wrote the segment specifically for Ryder, but never for a moment is Ryder believable as the carefree tomboy, utterly disinterested in being "discovered" and becoming a movie star, not that that is in itself implausible. Rather, partly it's because one never believes the character: she's an actor acting. Jarmusch seems to want to hint at a typical fairy tale-type Hollywood story before pulling the rug from under the audience, but it just doesn't work.

The first segment also pales compared to what follows, the New York one following YoYo and Helmut, which is warm, funny, believable, and authentic. Audiences might be aware of the three lead actors, yet the characters they create are charmingly real. YoYo, initially irritated by Helmut's lack of driving experience, is quickly won over by his innate gentleness, a former circus clown who clearly finds everyone he encounters and even the rundown parts of Brooklyn fascinating. Even Angela's shrillness can't make a dent in his low-key, sweet good nature.

The Paris segment also plays well because it so goes against audience expectations. One might have assumed characters played by establish French actors like Catherine Deneuve- Gérard Depardieu, but Jarmusch surprises us with a proud if circumspect immigrant from the Ivory Coast and an abrasive blind woman. The ambiguity of the segment also intrigues, it ending without the viewer ever finding out much about the woman beyond comments about her blindness. She has her driver drop her off near a canal, where she steps perilously close to its edge. Is she contemplating suicide? Does the driver's minor traffic accident as he departs prevent this?

Roberto Benigni was already a huge star in his native Italy but unknown in America until his supporting role in Jarmusch's Down By Law (1986). He made a strong impression in that film; I haven't seen that since its original release, either, but I sure remember him. In Night on Earth, Jarmusch largely allows Benigni to run rampant like Jerry Lewis, much of his clowning improvised. His long monologue - the priest has hardly any lines - covering his character's escapades with pumpkins, a sheep, and finally a sister-in-law, is undeniably funny, even hilarious, though the segment does seem a bit misaligned with the other four vignettes.

The final episode is also very good, straightforward and powerful, Jarmusch's acknowledged tribute to Finnish filmmakers Mika and Aki Kaurismäki, right down to the casting of (and character name of) actor Pellonpää, a regular presence in their films. The darker humanism of this segment perhaps explains the placement of the broadly comic Benigni one before it.

Obviously, tying everything together are the fleeting but sometimes profound personal bonds passengers and taxi drivers sometimes make, especially in the anonymity of night with its darkness and quiet, empty street scenes, which is deglamorized. The 1995-2006 HBO reality series Taxicab Confessions pounced on this same basic concept, obviously, of the finite but sometimes fascinating interactions between people often from entirely different, even contrasting backgrounds. It's not exactly a profound film, but its best segments are unforgettable.

Video & Audio

? Presented in a director-approved full-frame (1.78:1) transfer from its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, Night On Earth looks good, comparable to what experiencing it in theaters was like back in the early-1990s. Originally in Dolby Stereo, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo is fine, with Tom Waits's distinctive songs and scoring coming off well. The French, Italian, and Finnish segments are English-subtitled, naturally. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements are mostly repeats from Criterion's 2007 DVD version. They include a "Q&A with Jim," a Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch from 1992, and a commentary track with cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin. A thick accompanying booklet includes the lyrics to Waits's songs, and essays by Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh.

Parting Thoughts

At its best, mesmerizing, Night on Earth is a beguiling little movie, unforgettable in parts, well represented on this Blu-ray and a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.






Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.



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