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DOWN BY LAW (director/writer: Jim Jarmusch; cinematographer: Robby Müller; editor: Melody London; music: John Lurie; cast: Tom Waits (Zack), John Lurie (Jack), Roberto Benigni (Roberto), Nicoletta Braschi (Nicoletta), Ellen Barkin (Laurette), Billie Neal (Bobbie), Rockets Redglare (Gig, poker player), Vernel Bagneris (Preston); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Alan Kleinberg; The Criterion Collection; 1986)
“Stylish hipster comedy that delivers the laughs.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jim Jarmusch (“Night on Earth”/”Dead Man”/”Stranger Than Paradise”) is the writer-director of this slow-moving stylish hipster comedy that delivers the laughs. It’s shot in a brilliant noirish black and white tone and with far-reaching long take tracking shots by Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. The film is divided into three parts: 1/3 of it is set in the bleak slums of New Orleans that look like it was hit with a hurricane, the second part is in jail and the third part is in a swamp. Though it’s more interested in comedy than content, the engaging idiosyncratic film nevertheless still comes with a message that “It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

Hard luck disc jockey Zack (Tom Waits, the singer’s first major movie role) is canned from his radio gig and his upset girlfriend Laurette (Ellen Barkin) gives him the boot from her pad. While Drunkenly sitting on a pile of street garbage and drinking bourbon from a bottle, a local sharpie (Vernel Bagneris) offers Zack a $1,000 to just drive a luxury foreign import from one side of New Orleans to the other. But the cops pull him over and arrest him when it turns out to be a stolen car with a dead man in the trunk. Meanwhile Jack (John Lurie, musician with the Lounge Lizards), a big-talking but small-time pimp, has been set up by an unpleasant rival called Fatso. When Zack goes to the room of an underaged ”Cajun goddess,” given to him as a gift by Fatso to pay for his debts, to recruit her to join his stable, the vice squad raids the place and he’s arrested for child molestation.

Jack and Zack, even though they are similar types, are hostile cellmates at the Orleans Parish Prison when they are joined by a confused Italian tourist, Bob (Roberto Benigni), who is overly friendly and speaks a fractured English. While Jack and Zack bemoan that they are innocents who were framed, Bob freely admits that he killed in self-defense with a pool hall ball the man who caught him cheating at cards. At first Bob’s reciting of verses in Italian of Walt Whitman and his cheerfulness annoys the melancholy boys, but when in his pidgin English he gets the entire jail following his riotous chant of “You scream. I scream. We all scream for ice cream”and later comes up with an escape plan through the sewers–the three patch up their differences and cross the Louisiana bayou together. There they symbolically get lost in the woods, as Bob recites from memory Frost’s poem of the ”Road Not Taken.”

Down by Law has a fable-like ending; it also asserts its belief in movie magic, in being optimistic and is a quirky original one-of-a-kind buddy film that has to be seen to be believed because its slight story doesn’t do it justice by just being heard.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”