Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth is an agreeably flaky comedy built around a surefire hook. Each of the film’s five segments consists of a single extended taxicab ride through a different city; the idea is that each excursion is taking place at exactly the same time. Jarmusch starts out in Los Angeles, then moves to New York, Paris, Rome, and, finally, Helsinki. (Why Helsinki? As far as I could tell, so that the movie could end at sunrise.) Night on Earth’s cosmic title may lead you to expect a spiritual overview of the state of the world, but the joke is that these cabbies and their passengers all speak a universal language of disconnectedness. Before long, the taxis themselves begin to feel cozy and familiar. The movie is like a hipster’s ramshackle version of traveling around the world and never leaving the Hilton.
Jarmusch is an intriguing contradiction: an avant-garde entertainer, a downtown aesthete with one foot (well, okay, a few toes) in show biz. In Jarmusch films like the punk-deadpan road comedy Stranger Than Paradise (1984), people talk to each other without really having conversations, and almost nothing that happens is of much consequence. Sound boring? No more so than your average day, which is brimming with exactly the sort of fragmentary exchanges and subliminal missed connections that most moviemakers leave out — and that, for Jarmusch, are about the only things worth putting in.
Night on Earth is a series of off-the-wall duets. In L.A., an elegant and world-weary Hollywood casting agent (Gena Rowlands), on her way home from the airport, takes a protective shine to the goony, chain-smoking tomboy (Winona Ryder) behind the wheel. In Paris, a surly immigrant from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankolé), who seems to inspire the instant dislike of all his passengers, ends up patronizing a voluptuous blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) despite his best efforts to be friendly. In Rome, a chattering, monkeyish cabbie (Roberto Benigni) keeps rocketing in the wrong direction down one-way streets as he delivers an epic confessional monologue about his sexual exploits. This segment is at once the most hilarious — you may never look at a pumpkin the same way again — and the most monotonous, with Benigni, a hyperkinetic ham, wearing out his welcome.
One reason a Jarmusch movie is hard to summarize is that the juice is in the details, the throwaway observations, which the director orchestrates with microscopic randomness. In the L.A. segment, Winona Ryder’s flutter-bug performance is showy and annoying; the notion that this scruffy girl is unreasonably content to drive her scruffy cab seems a one-note joke, at best. What stays with you is the subtle warmth of Gena Rowlands’ aristocratic- executive manner: This may be the first time in movies someone has succeeded at looking soulful while holding a cellular phone. Likewise, the Paris segment flies not because the premise is so terrific but because Jarmusch had the mischievous wit to take one of the sexiest actresses in the world — Béatrice Dalle, from Betty Blue — and get her to contort her face and eyes, subverting the easy sympathy movies generally inspire for the blind. It also helps to have comic grace notes like a never-explained Band-Aid on the driver’s forehead.
Night on Earth dawdles a bit, and a couple of the segments, notably the one in Helsinki, feel like half-baked epiphanies. Throughout, though, there are moments that catch you delightfully off guard. My favorite episode is the one in New York, in which a rowdy black Brooklynite (Giancarlo Esposito) hails a cab driven by a former circus clown from East Germany (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose spectacular ineptitude — the man literally cannot drive his car — comes to seem almost angelic. Esposito gives an explosive comic performance. Cackling in disbelief that a human being could actually be named ”Helmut,” he gets you right on his skeptical, homeboy-joker’s wavelength. Absolutely nothing about these two characters connects, yet in their very recognition of that fact they attain a fleeting bond. That’s the Jarmusch touch — when all ”significance” melts away, and life suddenly comes down to just being somewhere.