Bucket List Movie #438: Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Recently I vented to my husband about my frustration at screenwriters who create characters they implicitly believe are “relatable”, the kind they think are exactly like you and me in every respect. I exclaimed,
“I don’t want characters to be like me! I like characters who are better than I am!”
“Or worse,” my husband reasonably countered.
He’s not wrong, of course. Characters who don’t resemble ourselves or people we know tend to be, in my mind, a lot more interesting than characters who do. But, for my money, I will take characters who are better than I am any day of the week. Those who are kinder, braver, more talented, more heroic. If they are worse than I am, then fine, but they had better be interesting.
That’s my problem with Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 magnum opus Stranger than Paradise. I confess to knowing very little about Jim Jarmusch except that he’s quite influential in the indie film scene, and that he has the quirkiest hairdo this side of David Lynch. I’ve griped before that I prefer linear storytelling, but even the most convoluted and/or nonexistent plot can be redeemed by interesting, rounded characters who go through something resembling an arc (Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture comes to mind). Unfortunately, Stranger than Paradise has neither going for it. I will say that the characters in this movie are not only worse than I am, but a lot more boring (at least, I hope so).
Bela “Willie” Molnar (John Lurie) is a Hungarian immigrant living in 1980s New York. His days seem to be spent betting on races and basically being a hipster loser. He has no other hobbies or interests of which to speak. Willie is unexpectedly visited by his teenaged cousin from Budapest, Eva (Eszter Balint), whose one defining character trait seems to be she repeatedly listening to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” (fair warning, you will come to hate this song by movie's end), but, besides that, she is just as sullen, mush-mouthed, and bored with life as Willie is. A weird sort of affection forms between them, as Eva steals groceries for Willie (she’d have to, since he doesn’t seem to have a job besides gambling), and he, presumptuous jerk that he is, buys her a dress so she can “look like everyone else” (even though her messy ponytail and black trench coat make her look exactly like every other New Yorker in 1984). There's a scene where they silently watch TV for hours on end (feels like it, too). What do these scenes add up to? Diddley doo-dah.
When Eva leaves for Cleveland to live her aunt, Willie, for whatever reason, decides to visit, his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) in tow. What do they do when they visit her? They mooch off her aunt, bitch about the snow (yes, because New York is famous for its sunny, mild winters), and look at Lake Erie (which can’t be seen, because, you know, it’s covered in snow). What do these scenes add up to? I guess that New Yorkers like to gripe about places that aren't New York (though I could have told you that).
After that meaningless interlude, they decide to go to Florida, and at this point I was praying they’d get there and be eaten by alligators. Willie and Eddie are virtually interchangeable from each other, both whiny, mumbling losers who somehow have $600 to spend on their vacation (don't you have to have a busy life for it to be called "a vacation"?). I would credit that to betting at the race tracks, but I don’t believe these two would have the mental agility to drop coins into a piggy bank on the first try, much less win money at the races. But off they go, this motley gang of losers, and they stay at a fleabag motel, lose their money at the races, and this is after they seemingly abandon Eva at the motel. How emotionally removed is Eva? She handles being left alone without a note or a clue of where they went with only mild annoyance and Dull Surprise, when anyone else, real or fictional, would be losing their minds. Seriously, honey, you have no money, no mode of transportation, you're all alone, and I’ll bet dinner and a dessert you're not even a legal citizen. But contrived serendipity smiles on her, for she is able to get more money just by being mistaken by a drug dealer for another drug dealer, and instead of just hightailing it with the money, actually leaves some for Willie and Eddie (and I was just starting to respect her, too). What does all this add up to? Zip-a-rooney.
What was the plot of Stranger than Paradise? What was the theme? What was the conflict? Damned if I know. All I saw was a bunch of slackers spreading their nothingness across the nation. It is apparently about the bond between Eva and Willie, but I saw no real chemistry, no closeness, nothing at all between them. If that’s Jarmusch's idea of a relationship, than it’s the coldest, most boring relationship I’ve ever seen. Willie has no compunction about dictating what Eva listens to, wears, and leaving her alone in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere for hours on end while he and his idiot friend dribble away money like two-bit Damon Runyon characters. If pressured, I would say Eva is the most rounded of the three, but that’s like choosing between the colors cream, ivory, or taupe to paint your office. I want to make myself clear: I don’t expect all fictional characters to be likable, but I do expect them to be halfway compelling, and I certainly didn’t get this from Willie, Eva, or Eddie.
There are unlikable characters I like or even love. I could never be friends with, say, Scarlett O’Hara, Bridget Gregory, or Jean Harrington, but I sure as hell would love to eavesdrop on their conversations. The characters in Stranger than Paradise, on the other hand? I wouldn’t even want to share an elevator with these people, much less spend an hour and a half with them. 89 minutes trudged by like a slug on a hot sidewalk. If nothing else, Stranger than Paradise feels like the precursor for the black and white independent films of the 1990s (such as Clerks), and the “mumblecore” movies of the 2000s and 2010s. Whether or not this is a good thing is open for debate. All I can say is, the characters in this movie are definitely worse than I am and people I know, but I’m not sure they’re more watchable.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Jim Jarmusch tracked down Screamin' Jay Hawkins to compensate him for use of "I Put a Spell on You" in Stranger than Paradise after finding out that the money for the rights to the song went to the record company. Hawkins at this point was living in a trailer park, became friends with Jarmusch, appeared in Jarmusch's Mystery Train some years later, and enjoyed a small comeback as a result. Hawkins died in 2000 at the age of 70.