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August 11, 2017

Night on Earth

by Franz Patrick


Night on Earth (1991)
★★ / ★★★★

When I take a taxi, I make sure to communicate in some way that I am open for conversation. Cab drivers interact with all sorts of people and, in my experience, they almost always have an interesting story to tell. That is why the premise of “Night on Earth,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, captured my interest immediately: It is composed of five vignettes that take place at the same time in five different countries—all surrounding a taxi driver’s experience with a specific type of passenger.

It is most unfortunate, however, that its pair of aces is shown early on which results in a highly uneven package. The first and second vignettes are clearly the standouts because the energy and sense of humor are able to form a synergy. We feel that the interactions are genuine so the amusement that results from the interactions are natural. The other three—the Parisian story being the most palatable—are supposed to be funny but they are not. Forced just about every step of the way, especially that one that takes place in Rome, I sat there wondering when the unpleasant experience will be finished.

In the first vignette that takes place in Los Angeles, Winona Ryder plays a taxi driver named Corky whose dream is to become a mechanic like her elder brothers. Corky picks up Victoria (Gena Rowlands), a casting agent, from the airport after scouting for young women across the country for a role in a Hollywood movie. Over the course of the ride, it becomes clear to Victoria that the inexperienced actor with the potential to become a superstar is right under her nose. In a span of about twenty five minutes, there is never a dull moment. Ryder and Rowlands cherish every line uttered and allow the silence to settle when necessary so it really feels like we are watching a real taxi ride.

The episode with the most verve involves a taxi driver from Germany named Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a New Yorker named YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) who needs a ride to Brooklyn but no other taxi would stop for him. The first punchline is Helmut not being able to drive. The second is the language barrier. And yet despite the two men being so different on the surface, they find warm commonalities. For instance, they both like to laugh. When they laugh, even though what the source of the laughter is a bad joke or pun, we want to laugh with them nonetheless. There is so much joy in every frame that I did not want the vignette to end so soon.

When attention is turned to Europe, things start to get bizarre. While understandable that the writer-director hopes to deliver something different each time—mood, tone, the type of comedy—the bottom line is they need to work. They do not. While I was able to withstand the conversations between a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) and a driver whose had a really bad day (Isaach De Bankolé), I found the Roman taxi driver (Roberto Benigni) to be intolerable. I found the whole charade of him talking in a robotic voice to be so annoying. His passenger is a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and at one point I wondered if the customer would dare to jump out of the vehicle.

I did not know what to make of the final vignette that takes place in Helsinki. Although it is nicely acted by Matti Pellonpää, who plays the driver, the sudden turn toward straight-faced drama feels completely out of place. Eventually, I felt bad for every person in that cab. I kept looking for the irony or punchline but found none. Aside from its conceit, what other quality tethers it to the previous stories?

“Night on Earth” is an unbalanced picture with some good writing and performances. Clearly, its strength is an ear for American dialogue in an urban area. I wondered how much stronger it would have been given that it had focused instead on Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans. And then perhaps a five- to ten-minute intermission that takes place in a small town in the middle of America.

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