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STRANGER THAN PARADISE (director/writer: Jim Jarmusch; cinematographer: Tom DiCillo; editors: Jim Jarmusch/Melody London; music: John Lurie; cast: John Lurie (Willie), Eszter Balint (Eva), Richard Edson (Eddie), Cecilia Stark (Aunt Lottie), Danny Rosen (Billy), Rammellzee (Man with money); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Sara Driver; MGM Home Entertainment; 1984-USA/West Germany)
“It’s a hipster version of Marty.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A top-draw slacker comedy shot on a shoestring budget, that beat the Coen Brothers to the punch in getting to a new way to make modern-day wacky comedies. It takes no prisoners in going for style over plot, and in using its depressing landscape to set a bleak mood and unearth funny but damning emotional responses. It’s a hipster version of Marty. The droll comedy is crackling as both a road movie and a character study in alienation. Jim Jarmusch’s (“Dead Man”/Mystery Train”/”Night on Earth”) brilliant low-key second feature after Permanent Vacation (1980) features characters wearing cheap fedoras they don’t remove even when retiring for the night and a music range from Bartok to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; it’s a minimalist film where scenes suddenly end in a fade-out to black. Jarmusch divides it into three parts in different locations that all have the same forlorn look, as he takes us from the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to a wintry barren rundown working-class section of Cleveland and finally to a dreary remote east coast part of Florida. It’s a genteel comedy where sex, vulgarity and violence are not part of the non-action story. The indie gem was shot in 16- millimeter black-and-white and blown up to 35 millimeter, with its images purposefully appearing faded to give it a bum’s rush look.

Irritable Aunt Lottie (Cecilia Stark) from Cleveland calls up dead-beat thirtysomething NY family member Willie (John Lurie, musician with the Lounge Lizards) and tells him his pretty 16-year-old cousin from Hungary, Eva (Eszter Balint), is arriving by plane and he should keep her for ten days before putting her on the train to Cleveland, as she has to be in the hospital. The reluctant Willie, who is a slacker with no visible means of support other than being a small-time gambler on the ponies and a cheating poker player, dutifully obeys but goes out of his way to be cold to Eva. But Eva’s a piece of work and no helpless female foreigner, who soon earns Willie’s respect by scoring some food and Chesterfields by shoplifting. The only visitor to Willie’s dumpy apartment is his socially misfit friend Eddie (Richard Edson), who is polite but handles himself in an awkward manner that is ripe for comedy. When Eva departs to stay with the elderly Hungarian speaking Aunt Lottie, the boys miss her even though they hardly conversed and did nothing while she was here but watch television. A year passes and the boys have a nest egg of $600 from cheating at cards and winning at the track, and borrow a friend’s battered car to visit Eva in Cleveland. She welcomes them with open arms, and when they leave after a few days of watching TV, going to a kung-fu movie to accompany Eva on her date and visiting a frozen Lake Erie, they take her with them to Florida. But they leave her in a dumpy seaside motel in the rural part of Florida, as they take a big hit at the dog track. When they leave her again the next day to bet their last few dollars at the horse track, Eva in a strange way comes into a lot of money and splits but not before leaving them a note and some money.

In the end, the three similar kooky types have a complete breakdown in communication and go their separate ways. It’s the kind of strange film that has a deliciously tart wit and is funny in a heady way that current successful slacker filmmakers like a Judd Apatow can’t approach but through lowbrow crude humor that is immature at best.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”