At first glance, Night On Earth may appear to be the most exemplary film in Jim Jarmusch’s career. It unfolds in detached vignettes (five, this time) just like Mystery Train (1989) and Coffee & Cigarettes (2003); like those two and Down By Law (1986), it prominently features Tom Waits; and like all of his films, it depicts characters in a state of paralysis, unable to achieve their dreams. Plot is low, irony is high, and humor is dark and understated.
The five vignettes unfold almost entirely in taxis. They all take place at the same time, as the resetting of clocks between each segment reminds us. As each new story begins, the camera swoops across a map of the earth to take us to a new location, emphasizing that these people are all humans facing the same problems. In Los Angeles, taxi-driver Corky (Winona Ryder) aspires to be a mechanic but is held back by her youth and gender. She does not get along terribly well with her customer, a casting agent, but they nonetheless find themselves able to speak freely after a polite conversation about how suddenly the sun went down. In New York, the cabby is perhaps the worst driver in the city. In Paris, he faces discrimination before picking up a blind woman; in Rome it’s a memorable performance by Roberto Benigni, who never stops talking; and finally we arrive in Helsinki just before dawn, where the driver swaps sob stories with a trio of drunken men. These tales are wildly uneven. New York is bloated with empty shouting and obvious mockery and Rome is amusing right until it tries to become meaningful, but the bookends are both intelligent, Los Angeles propelled by good performance and intelligent banter while Helsinki’s honesty is touching and demands perspective, although it is forced a bit too hard.
The Paris segment, however, saves Night On Earth. The good-hearted but controlling cabby (Isaach De Bankolé) is fascinated with the blind passenger (Béatrice Dalle). He asks her a couple questions we all wonder, and a few that we probably know better than to ask, but his heart is always in the right place as he tries to connect with another victim of discrimination. The dialogue pushes us ever so slightly towards conclusions but is far from heavy-handed in doing so, showing us how similar we are despite our differences and how we all nothing more than to be treated equally despite our disadvantages or our appearance. Each of the five vignettes tells us that we all just want to have a fair shot, but none tackle this question with all of its complexity as the Paris segment, asking what it means to be “fair,” how we respond or ought to respond when faced with adversity of any kind, how to deal with the perceptions of others.
Really, though, that elaboration displays both the saving grace and the biggest issue with Night On Earth. Each section works to shine a light on the same ideas, tweaking the emphasis so as to avoid redundancy with varying degrees of effectiveness, and while Jarmusch does indeed avoid redundancy, he also never takes a risk, always staying comfortably within a too-narrow framework and thus falling short of epiphany. Helsinki ends appropriately, with a reality-check and an urge to gain perspective, but it also feels like a pre-determined end to generate the meaning we all want instead of the most appropriate.
Frederick Elmes’ cinematography does not blend as well with Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic style as effectively as Robby Müller’s does, but there are still some impressive long-takes spread throughout the film. Colors are subdued just enough to fit the film’s gloomy tone, so the film’s look always feels appropriate for its subject matter while also looking lively enough to invite the audience to laugh without feeling too awkward. In fact, there are plenty of laughs to be had. Benigni’s eccentricity is even more commanding when he is the sole screen presence than it was as the prisoner in Down By Law, and the strange relationship between driver and passenger in Los Angeles is amusing without ever needing cheap punch-lines. But the humor comes off as a shield instead of an enhancement, so Night On Earth feels like it’s trying to merely be good instead of attempting to reach some level of greatness. It succeeds, but it’s a boring success, one that feels redundant next to Jarmusch’s preceding films, which explore many of the same themes but with far more profundity and confidence.