Lights, Camera, Taxi! Director Turns Cabs Into Sets

`NIGHT on Earth," the new movie by Jim Jarmusch, isn't likely to change anyone's mind about this offbeat filmmaker. If you think he's an exciting visual stylist with a subtle sense of humor, you'll find evidence of that here. Ditto if you think he's pretentious and dull.

I consider myself a member of the pro-Jarmusch camp, since I strongly admire his brilliant "Stranger Than Paradise" and much of "Mystery Train," his last movie. I don't automatically cheer his work, however, which was less inspired in "Down by Law" and his debut film, "Permanent Vacation."

My favorable vote for "Night on Earth" doesn't mean I love every part of the movie, which consists of five separate stories and varies in quality from one section to another. But it has a number of magical moments and a marvelously long list of top-notch performances. In all, it is as stimulating and refreshing as anything this season is likely to give us.

"Night on Earth" carries Mr. Jarmusch's minimalism to new extremes. Although the action of the movie is spread all over the world, every episode is largely confined to the cramped interior of a taxicab, speeding through the dark streets of a nocturnal city. One of the great achievements of "Night on Earth" is its success in providing a continual stream of vivid images, despite the extraordinary limitations imposed by the picture's basic premise.

The first episode is perhaps the best, primarily because of its excellent acting. Gena Rowlands, one of the most accomplished actresses in film today, plays a Los Angeles talent agent returning from a business trip - her mind racing with ideas, and her cellular phone ready in case a sudden opportunity comes along. She is obviously a first-class professional, and she's just as obviously an isolated and lonely individual. Which helps explain why she takes such an interest in the young cabbie who drives her

from the airport, played by Winona Ryder in her most mature screen appearance to date.

What happens between these two isn't particularly dramatic: Faced with the candor and contentment of her new acquaintance, the older woman starts questioning her own values, which suddenly seem shallower and emptier than they did before. Jarmusch gives the episode a keen emotional charge, though, handling it with a warmth usually excluded from his deliberately cool approach. The vignette gets "Night on Earth" off to a splendid start.

The second episode, set in New York, features more superb performances. Giancarlo Esposito plays a black man looking for a taxi in a white neighborhood - a hopeless situation, until the fortunate arrival of a newly immigrated German cabbie who doesn't know much about the city, the English language, or the controls of his own automobile.

They head for Brooklyn, quarreling over who will drive and how they will cope with the passenger's feisty sister, who suddenly pops out of the shadows. This portion of "Night on Earth" hits a couple of false notes, particularly when the cabbie reveals himself as a former circus clown with too much cuteness up his sleeve. Still, the energy level is impressively high, and Mr. Esposito gets imaginative support from Armin Mueller-Stahl and Rosie Perez as his cabmates.

Paris is the setting for Episode No. 3, about a black driver who rids himself of some nasty passengers, only to pick up a blind woman with a moody and mysterious personality. Jarmusch attempts to explore the psychology of the outsider, with limited success despite Beatrice Dalle's boldly eccentric performance.

The next section moves to Rome, where an ailing priest dies in a taxi driven by the city's most talkative (and sex-obsessed) cabbie. Fans of Italian comedian Roberto Benigni may enjoy the pitch-black humor of this episode, but I find it the movie's weakest link.

Jarmusch's most daring move is to end "Night on Earth" on its darkest note, with a Chekhovian story of three sad men wending their way home after a night of carousing and trading tales of woe with their equally forlorn driver. It's a strange episode, hovering between humor and melancholy, just as the hour hovers between latest night and earliest morning. Judging from two screenings of the film that I've attended, this portion touches some spectators and leaves others cold; but either way, one must admit that Jarmusch remains as determined as ever to evade the usual definitions of comedy, melodrama, and tragedy.

You can't make a full-length movie in taxicabs without relying on a lot of talking-head shots, and it's hard to defend "Night on Earth" against the charge that it's basically five sitcom episodes strung together. Many of those talking heads are excellent company, though, and seem perfectly at home on the wide theatrical screen. "Night on Earth" isn't always a smooth ride, but it reconfirms writer-director-producer Jarmusch as one of the most original filmmakers on the scene today. Rated R for language and sensuality.

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