“You know, it’s funny. You come to some place new, and everything looks just the same.” So says Eddie (Richard Edson) to protagonist Willie (John Lurie) while they loaf around snow covered train tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. The line is a funny one, but it might as well serve as the film’s thesis. Stranger Than Paradise‘s first segment, taking place in Willie’s hometown of New York City despite being a Hungarian immigrant, is prefaced by a title card slapped against a black screen: “The New World.” It may sound too grandiose for a film as listless and “boring” as Paradise, but it seems as if writer/director Jim Jarmusch is showing us American decay via the lowest common denominator: us. Although its trio of characters travel from New York to Ohio to Florida, “everything looks just the same” – it’s a homogenized landscape occasionally spotted with people who do nothing.
More than once throughout the brief runtime the camera is placed behind a television set, or in front of a movie theater screen, and Jarmusch leaves us to simply observe Willie and his 16-year old cousin Eva (another Hungarian immigrant) as they watch TV in complete silence. Thus, Stranger Than Paradise seems to function as a love letter to sorry deadbeats such as myself; people who willingly detach themselves and sit in front of a television screen alone. We can’t wait to get home and sit in front of the television and do nothing, alone. Sure, Willie misses Eva once she’s left, but this is only after he’s aggravated by even the idea of her sharing the same space as him. This detachment is mimicked in Jarmusch’s form and structure – scenes are chopped together with a few thick seconds of black screen, cutting off scene from scene.
The mundane connections between the three characters, then, are Paradise‘s lifeblood. Their lives are listless and boring and Willie proves time and time again to be a less-than ideal hero. Everywhere they go they end up playing Solitaire (another amusing component to the alone-ness of the movie) or watching television or offering up lazy arguments or simply sitting and smoking in silence. It’s a movie where the humor is in the cracks between lines or dialogue or simply the goofy looks perpetually on Eddie’s face. It’s so boring (it’s really not boring, just aloof and loose) it’s mesmerizing. As dead as its main trio are, Stranger Than Paradise is vital, powerful cinema.