Night on Earth July 17, 2015
I feel safest at nighttime, not on the streets but in the sheets, cemented to my bed with my laptop at my side. These summer nights seem to beg me to stay up until the earliest hours of the morning, and it’s hard not to comply — at 2 p.m., there’s nothing in the world stopping a friend from asking you for a favor, a grandma inviting you to move furniture for an estate sale, a parent demanding you mow both lawns, take out the garbage, and clean your bathroom. But at 2 a.m., every one of those people is asleep: nobody expects anything from you, and, for once, the stresses of reality cease because no one else is throwing them in your face. Nighttime is a period of spooky solitude, elusively appealing.
Night on Earth divides itself into five vignettes, all set during these wee hours, all involving the relationship between a taxi driver and their temporary client, all in a different city. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, one might expect a deadpan drama of steeping revelations and scintillating conversations, in the way Broken Flowers could make even the most awkward of an exchange blossom with black hilarity. But Night on Earth is wildly uneven, some of the segments mostly involving, others splendidly acted but unsuccessful in their rendering. I’ve always felt that a movie comprised of short films should be so arresting in each segment that it wouldn’t be unheard of to pine for a longer, feature adaptation. But even in its best moments, Night on Earth is slight, some performers more pleasing than others — a difficulty when some segments are damaged by particular characters.
The first vignette, set in Los Angeles, stars Winona Ryder as the cab driver, Corky, Gena Rowlands as the passenger, Victoria. Corky, young and spunky, chain smokes, chews bubblegum, and figures that her dream career is that of a mechanic; Victoria, middle-aged, welcoming, and refined, is a casting agent looking for fresh talent. She sees a spark in Corky, figuring her rough-and-tumble attitude could be assembled into a rebellious, cool product headed toward stardom. This segment, though dampened by Ryder’s unconvincing portrayal of a grungy youth with small dreams, makes an impression thanks to the always lovely Rowlands, who makes what could be an unlikable character affectionate, motherly even.
The second, stationed in New York and headed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito, and Rosie Perez, is the second most annoying of the segments: driver Stahl, a German immigrant, hardly knows how to drive, so his customer Esposito takes over the wheel and loudmouths his way through awkward silences. Midway through the trip, the two pick up the shrill Perez, who happens to be Esposito’s sister-in-law. The vignette could be enjoyable, with Stahl sweetening the atmosphere as a gentle giant, but Esposito and Perez are so obnoxious that we can hardly wait for the short to be over.
The third sequence travels to Paris, by far working as the most straightforward, best written moment in the film. Here, a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) gets a ride from an endlessly pissed off driver (Isaach De Bankolé) who rethinks his usual grumpiness after she gives him a run for his money: the woman, it seems, is scorned by life and completely disregards her ailment, scoffing whenever her cabbie asks an inappropriately curious question. The segment works so well because of the rapport between Dalle and Bankolé — whereas the other shorts attempt to have the characters find a mutual understanding between each other, Dalle and Bankolé’s mutual curiosity/disdain bears an odd sexual tension, fascinating just enough to leave us potentially wanting more but backing off when considering just how well it works.
I won’t go far into the fourth sequence (set in Rome), which is jaw-droppingly irritating as comedian Roberto Benigni delivers a mile-a-minute performance as a cab driver who just won’t shut up. If he’s annoying to his guest then he’s annoying to us as well — don’t expect to want to do anything besides fast-forward as his mouth runs into oblivion, us preferring deafness to hearing any more about another one of his sexual experiences. Following the exasperation of this vignette, Night on Earth ends on a melancholy note as it hits the snowy streets of Helsinski, with a group of passengers complaining about how horrible their friend’s day was until the driver decides to top it with a soul crushing experience himself.
While I appreciate Jim Jarmusch’s enviable ability to turn realism into sardonic astuteness, Night on Earth feels more like a filmmaking exercise than an actual film. It doesn’t move — it serves as an experiment pleasing only the people involved while the audience sits and waits patiently for something moving to