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For, Friday, April 26, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thirty-four years ago this was the first feature by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Dead Man,’ ‘Broken Flowers’), and it set the tone for his successive oeuvre of singularly character-driven and eccentric work. Now, the Criterion Collection has given the film a well-deserved Blu-ray upgrade with copious special features. My review was published on Jan. 29, 1985, in the Deseret News.

"Offbeat" seems to be a word I’ve overused in recent reviews, but here’s yet another film for which no other word seems to fit as well.

“Stranger Than Paradise” is as odd as any we’ve had lately, as it unravels its slight yarn about two lowlife losers, their little schemes to get ahead, and their friendship with each other and with the Eastern European cousin of one who becomes an important part of their lives.

This strange little film, shot in black and white, and with an unusual segue device — a few seconds of blackout between each scene — is an episodic picture basically broken into thirds.

The first third introduces us to Willie (John Lurie), a Hungarian immigrant who has been in New York for 10 years. He is forced to take in his young cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) for 10 days immediately after she arrives in the United States, and he finds she is just as reluctant about it as he is.

Soon, however, they grow accustomed to each other, and when she eventually leaves for Cleveland to live with their Aunt Lottie (Cecillia Stark), Willie finds he’s sorry to see her go.


Eszter Balint, John Lurie, 'Stranger Than Paradise'

During this segment we also meet Eddie (Richard Edson), Willie’s best friend and fellow hustler. They gamble together and generally live on the fringes of life in the big city.

The second segment takes place a year later, as Willie and Eddie impulsively borrow a car and head for Cleveland to have a little vacation, and to visit Eva and Aunt Lottie.

The third has them departing Cleveland when, on the road back to New York, impulse strikes again and they return to “kidnap” Eva, then the threesome heads to Florida to escape the snow.

It is there that the funniest and oddest things happen to them, as the film comes to its logical — at least logical for this film — conclusion.

“Stranger Than Paradise” is an artsy film that depends on silence more than dialogue to keep things moving, and its characters seem both real and interesting.


There’s not much action but there is subtle character development, and in the end we feel for this eccentric trio and find ourselves laughing with them, not at them.

There are many humorous moments and they seem to creep up on you. For example, at one point Willie explains to Eva about American TV dinners, and the humor grows out of the conversation, inherent in their reactions to one another, rather than something that is cleverly spoken.

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has a real knack for character development and makes his people truly charming and endearing. And his cast is well chosen, each seeming exactly right for his/her character.

The style of the film takes a little getting used to, but once you get into its rhythms, you’re in for a delightful little character study that is half “road” picture as well.

Rated R for language, “Stranger Than Paradise” is stranger than anything else around right now, but in its own quirky way, it is also quite delightful.