Movie Review: Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise
Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Stranger Than Paradise ignited the 1984 New York Film Festival. No one had seen anything quite like it. Made with leftover film stock, it was bottom-low budget, black and white, deadpan beyond all reckoning, and side-splitting. Well, side-splitting for some. The first time I saw it was like visiting a foreign country, even though it was shot in the United States. NYC, Cleveland and Florida never looked so otherworldly. The two main characters, Willie and Eddie, had so immersed themselves in retro I thought for a few minutes this was a period movie set in the fifties. Willie, a Hungarian who’s lived in New York for years, hangs out with friend Eddie. Cousin Eva, over Willie’s protestations, comes to stay with him. Willie grudgingly introduces her to America. Eddie visits but Willie protects Eve from him and quarantines her from New York. Eva tries to civilize Willie, to no avail. She has a few molecules more ambition than either Willie or Eddie. She goes to her Aunt Lottie in Cleveland (a hilarious turn by Cecillia Stark). The two men visit her, then split with her for Florida. They drift, Willie and Eddie gamble, nothing gets resolved. They piddle. They do stuff, they wander aimlessly, and fecklessness has never been more entertaining.

The deadpan dialogue is a treat. It’s deadpan as a way of living, deadpan as protection from reality, deadpan because who cares, deadpan as transcendence. Here is a typical scene:

Willie: You’re sure you don’t want a TV dinner?
Eva: Yes. I’m not hungry. Why is it called TV dinner?
Willie: Um… You’re supposed to eat it while you watch TV. Television.
Eva: I know what a TV is. Where does that meat come from?
Willie: What do you mean?
Eva: What does that meat come from?
Willie: I guess it comes from a cow.
Eva: From a cow? It doesn’t even look like meat.
Willie: Eva, stop bugging me, will you? You know, this is the way we eat in America. I got my potatoes. I got my vegetables. I got my dessert, and I don’t even have to wash the dishes.

Of course, these are words on the page. In the movie it’s on the stage, and brilliant done. But if you find this even a bit funny, you’ll probably find the film hilarious, maybe a revelation. I’ve seen it at least eight times, and I still laugh at it. Many scenes get better with age. Like it? Here’s a bit more:

Eddie: You know, last year before I met your cousin, I never knew you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places.
Willie: So what?
Eddie: I thought you were an American.
Willie: Hey, I’m as American as you are.
{Silence. They begin driving into Cleveland.]
Eddie: Does Cleveland look a little like, uh, Budapest?
Willie: Eddie, shut up.

I’ve either convinced you by now or not. There probably aren’t any fence-sitters. Take a leap of faith, if you need to, and give it a shot. The skewed life awaits.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library