Mini-Review of “Night on Earth”

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I always want to like Jim Jarmusch’s films more than I do and I guess that was sort of true of this one as well. But I have to say that of the handful of his movies I’ve seen this one stands up the best. It’s an original and very clever device having the action taking place in five different taxi cabs in five different cities at exactly the same time. After having watched so many Kaurismaki films, it’s clear that Jarmusch is also a fan of Aki’s wry, detached humor.

The first vignette has the benefit of Gena Rowlands whose elegance and energy are incomparable. But pairing her with the gum-snapping caricature of an El-Lay cabbie brought to questionable “life” by Winona Ryder at her scenery-chewing worst brought that part of the movie down.

The second story set in NYC felt contrived (how did the East German clown get a hack’s license with that kind of driving?), over-loud and badly clichéd. Again the problem was a lack of nuance and characters that played more as caricatures than people. Rosie Perez can do a lot more than screech and curse; it’s too bad she didn’t get the chance here.

The one set in Paris was dry and funny in a twisted kind of way although it was clear from her performance that Beatrice Dalle is very comfortable being an international sensation. While the cabbie in this vignette came off as a bit more believable, his African businessmen passengers were nothing more than cartoon characters.

The one in Rome was kind of dumb and forgettable. Roberto Benigni too often already goes into such overdrive that he’s cringingly difficult to watch and here, forget about it. Having him driving around giving a thoroughly ridiculous confession to the poor priest trapped in his cab was painful.

Then we got to Helsinki and that’s the story that gets the least attention in every review which is a mystery to me. The cab in Helsinki is being driven by one of my favorite Kaurismaki actors: Matti Pellonpää. If there was one character in “Night on Earth” that came across as a real person it was Matti. He’s absolutely riveting and does it all with the slightest shift of his eyes or yawn. Even the drunks he’s taking home come across more realistically than any of the characters in the previous sections of the story. The final shots of a frigidly cold Helsinki dawn put the perfect touch on the ending.

Not a great movie by any means, but that final vignette saved it for me.

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