Jim Jarmusch is keepin' the faith. After the rush following "Stranger Than Paradise," he has not gone Hollywood, gone crackers, gone anywhere but inside that resolutely original head of his to emerge with "Down by Law," an inkily comic dream of a film (Royal, Fairfax Cinemas).
A poker-faced fairy tale set in New Orleans' low-rent districts, jails, bayous and roadhouses, it sets two crumb-bums (Tom Waits, John Lurie), innocent of everything except stupidity, in the jail-house company of a cheerful Italian immigrant (Roberto Benigni), who just happens to have killed a man. (Self-defense. Pool-hall brawl. Hit him with an 8-ball. Could happen to anyone.)
Jarmusch's movies are a balancing act, little miracles of sustained timing. His rhythms are based on pauses, on shots that are held one beat, two beats beyond the expected, into the absurd. Few contemporary directors use unoccupied space and wordless glances with the comic wallop of Jarmusch; he's perfected a kind of formalist shaggy-dog style utterly his own.
It's a style very much like music, and it needs actors with the dry, throwaway timing of jazzmen. Who better than two singular musician-actors, Lurie (the sensually lugubrious one from "Stranger Than Paradise") and Waits, who's made a career of delivering his sardonic lyrics in a growled throwaway.
The last part of this trio is stand-up comedian Benigni, something of a household word in his native Italy, and the man for whom Jarmusch wrote the role of Roberto. Sweetly earnest, optimistic beyond reason or experience, Benigni's Roberto can make us laugh out loud simply by the way he combs his hair or by the chipmunk brightness of his round, dark eyes. Don't be deceived. This man has absolutely killer timing.
He appears only after we have gotten to know Zack (Waits), an unemployed New Orleans deejay whose sweetheart (Ellen Barkin) has just thrown his worldly goods out the window in terminal exasperation; and Jack (Lurie), a spectacularly ineffectual pimp. ("You're not even a good pimp," his lady Bobbie drawls, after cataloguing his shortcomings for a while, " 'cause a good pimp would've hit me by now.")
Zack and Jack meet in a cell at the Orleans Parish Prison. They would tell you they were framed, that they are in jail because of the innate trust each one placed in his fellow man. Or, you could call it cupidity, on a monumental scale. No matter. They are cell mates and, from the first instant,tooth-baring and contentious as a pair of rival chimpanzees. It does not make the time pass quickly. After some months, when they're almost dead of their own sullenness, the small, foreign Roberto is added to their cell. ("Call me Bob," he says, making it sound like Bop.)
Newly arrived in America, Roberto has somehow landed in New Orleans (actually, it's a match for his innately poetic soul), where he has been busy logging useful English phrases into a little spiral-bound notebook: "It's a sad and beautiful world," "Buzz off" and the kids' chant, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." He already knows the country's poets--in Italian translation: Walt Whitman; "Bob" Frost, "a very cynical man."
Cynical is the last word for this "Bob," however. He is confident, neat, irrepressible. He has learned all about America from reading--and from movies. From movies he knows about prisons and about getaways. To him they are inevitable. And so, one is.
Roberto is a jump-starter to the action and a catalyst for these two astounded Americans, busy with their downwardly spiraling lives. For actor Benigni, the best is yet to come: the inspired rabbit sequence in the forest--a piece of comic invention as graceful as a bit by Buster Keaton, as modest and as enduring.
The humor of "Down by Law" is marginally easier to describe than "Stranger Than Paradise," but only because, by now, we have a small idea of Jarmusch's style. It's still a kind of humor that evaporates as you try to explain it.
Also eluding description is the beauty, the street poetry and the precision of the images caught by Jarmusch and his cameraman, the great Robby Muller, whose black-and-white photography illuminated the early films of Wim Wenders. They have created a dream New Orleans, more succinct and more haunting than the city itself, and Lurie has set it to music.
This, the urgent rasp of Tom Waits' voice--"Hey, little bird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are gone"--even the droll little Jarmusch joke on "Bob" Frost's "Road Less Taken," which ends the picture, are part of the ineffable character of "Down by Law." It is a sad and beautiful world, indeed.