Jim Jarmusch must have been hard-pressed to conjure a follow-up to his low-budget New Wave comedy, Stranger Than Paradise. It won a top prize at the Cannes Festival, the New York crowd canonized the movie (it even won the best-picture award form a slightly perverse National Society of Film Critics), and hipsters everywhere fawned over it.
Jarmusch’s latest is now here. And Down by Law will very likely disappoint a lot of people who loved Stranger. The New York setting is gone, it has less of the punk archness, and the style is slightly more conventional.
Down by Law may very well not be as good as Stranger. But 15 minutes into this film, I was not inclined to bother making comparisons. That’s because Down by Law is an utterly fetching film itself, and needs to apologize to no one for the fact that it is broader and more normal than its predecessor.
The film begins with two separate stories, bridged by some sleek tracking shots of New Orleans housefronts. Zack (Tom Waits), a sometime disc jockey, is getting thrown out of the house by his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin). Jack (John Lurie), a natty pimp, is exchanging stylish B-movie clichés with one of his girls (Billie Neal).
These guys don’t know each other yet, but some truly bad fortune is going to lead them into the same jail cell. Their misery there is brightened by the arrival of Roberto, also known as Bob (Roberto Benigni), a terminally happy-go-lucky Italian who is fascinated by American slang. His fix on the mantra-like rhythms of “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” turns this familiar saying into a triumphant tribal chant.
Somehow these guys escape, and their irritable journey through the bayou takes up the remainder of the film. The cosmically comic high point of this comes when the freedom lovers arrive at a ramshackle, deserted house where they can spend the night. Its severe interior looks exactly like their jail cell.
The feel of Down by Law is much like Stranger. Jarmusch still uses long pauses and apparent improvisation to approximate the languor of conversation, while also relying on movie-made clichés.
But the look of the movie is sunnier, somewhat loopier. Robby Müller, one of the world’s best cinematographers, gives the black-and-white images great suppleness; he can go from the desolation of Zack sitting out on a curb at night, surrounded by his possessions, to the sun-bleached farewell that Bob gives his friends.
The three leads succeed brilliantly. Lurie, the star of Stranger, does a similar hip routine here (and also composed the music for the film). Benigni, a big star in Italy, is an energetic fellow with a long, dopey face you can’t help but like.
Waits steals the show. The growly singer displays a comic sense that is at once precise and frowzed-over. Authentic, too; the hair piled unrealistically high on his head cannot distract from a face that has met a few barroom floors. If anyone ever figures out how to use his singular gifts, Waits might find a specialized place in films.
First published in the Herald, September 28, 1986
The National Society of Film Critics decision doesn’t seem all that perverse today; see my own Ten Best list for 1984. Down by Law is a delightful movie and it certainly shows how much, in his third feature, Jarmusch was in command of his moviemaking skills and his view of the world.