In filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's cinematic world, everything is a shade of black or white. His landscapes are bleak and his characters have personalities to match.
His "Stranger Than Paradise" is a funny yet sometimes-depressing look at a couple of losers--Willie and the dimwitted Eddie, two New Yorkers who spend their time at the track when they are not drinking beer or hustling card players.
Their drab, urban lives are brightened for a while when Willie's cousin, Eva, played by Eszter Balint, arrives from Hungary and spends 10 days at Willie's apartment while in transit to "Clivlend," Ohio.
Willie, played by John Lurie (real-life leader of the bluesy-jazzy Lounge Lizards), is a slimy sort. In his cramped and dirty apartment, he teaches Eva about America and how Americans live. He explains to her the marvels of a TV dinner, American football and slang.
Eva's Americanization offers other funny moments in Jarmusch's deadpan, subtle way: Her American boyfriend offers to take her to a "foreign" film. "OK," she says, "why don't you see if there is a kung fu movie." When she shoplifts some food, she explains to Willie in her mechanical, accented voice: "I got them without money." When she packs her bags to go to Cleveland, Willie asks her to leave him some of her Chesterfields because she can buy them there. "They taste good there, too?" she asks, straight-faced.
Eventually, Eva goes to Cleveland, where she moves in with her ethnic Aunt Lottie and finds work at a hot dog emporium. It isn't the paradise she envisioned.
A year later, when Willie and Eddie (Richard Edson), hear the footsteps of their card-playing victims, they decide to visit Eva. From there, they make plans head for Florida to play the dogs and horses and take Eva along. The three strangers in paradise encounter joy and despair, poverty and riches and other twists of fate.
But leave it to Jarmusch to make Florida look like an urban hellhole. The palm trees look sickly and out of place, the skies perpetually overcast and the beaches cold and uninviting.
Jarmusch, who also directed the equally bleak and depressing "Down by Law,"--also starring Lurie--seems fascinated by slimy characters and their tacky, dead-end worlds. In both films his camera angles and choices of backgrounds put his characters in a no-escape-from-hell mode. Florida looks like Cleveland. Cleveland looks like New York. New York looks like Hungary.
Eddie says it best when he looks around a snowy rail yard in Cleveland and complains to Willie: "You know, you come somewhere new, and it's like you never left."
"Stranger Than Paradise" (1985), directed by Jim Jarmusch. Black and white. 90 minutes. Rated R.