Artistically if not economically, the '80s were awfully dismal times for Hollywood, which, after the restless experimentation of the previous decade, reverted to assembly-line moviemaking under the guidance of the Eisners and the Ovitzes and the Spielbergs. It's not surprising that one of the decade's true highlights is this beautifully loping piece of black-and-white minimalism.Centering on the random escapades of a knockabout trio--Willie (John Lurie), his Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint), and Willie's pal Eddie (Richard Edson)--STRANGER THAN PARADISE stands out from the plot-driven Hollywood product simply by daring to omit plot. The action, if you can call it that, scrolls from New York to Ohio to Florida (the film was entirely shot on location), but, perversely, nothing really happens. The movie plays out in a minor key--this is its strength. The film's laconic humor depends on the apparent pointlessness; each scene ends with a abrupt blackout, which only underscores, rather effectively, the apparent emptiness of the material. The film may or may not be making a broad comment on culture clash; it's hard to say. Just imagine a feature film composed of "deleted scenes" and you have a sense of the movie's aimless texture.
For this early effort, Jarmusch won the Camera d'Or (Best First Film) at Cannes. There is indeed something distinctly European about his style--introverted, laid-back, deriving more from the Theatre of the Absurd than from American sources. Or perhaps not: STRANGER reminds me of nothing more than the drifting feel of life in the Midwest (Jarmusch is from Ohio). It's difficult to depict banality on film; directors who try usually end by condescending to their subjects--think of Fargo, impressive though it is in many areas. Jarmusch does not. This alone makes STRANGER a major achievement.
Though clearly filmed on the cheap, the movie displays Jarmusch's sure hand at every turn--only one scene, a mistaken-identity bit toward the end, is clumsily staged.A real charmer, it is--a minor masterpiece, and a rare bright spot from a generally undistinguished period.