coming up on TV: NIGHT ON EARTH

NIGHT ON EARTH in Rome

Coming up on Turner Classic Movies on September 8 is Night on Earth, with one of the very funniest scenes and one of the very saddest scenes in the same movie.  Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Night on Earth is comprised of five vignettes each in a taxi and each in a different city: Los Angeles, New York, Paris Rome and, of all places, Helsinki.

Moving west to east across the time zones, Night on Earth opens with the contrast between a working class driver (Wynona Ryder) and a striver executive (Gena Rowlands) and how they connect – or don’t.

Then we move to New York where a totally disoriented East German immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) gets a job driving a hack (on his first or second day in the US) and picks up potty-mouthed passengers (Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez).

The LA and NYC scenes are good, but Night on Earth really accelerates in Paris when an African immigrant driver (Isaach De Bankolé) picks up a blind woman (the gap-toothed beauty Béatrice Dall). They are both a bit touchy and immediately get underneath each others skins. The prickly conversation that follows teaches each a little about the other.

Now we get to perhaps the funniest episode in the movies (yes, I mean in the history of cinema).   A manic, motormouth Roman cabbie (Roberto Benigni) picks up an ailing Catholic cleric and regales him with an unwanted stream of consciousness confession, highlighting his own ever more inappropriate sexual partners, including a pumpkin and a sheep. It’s a rapid fire comedic assault sure to convulse any audience.

Finally, in Helsinki, two guys toss their passed-out buddy into a cab, and explain that he’s had the worst day ever – he has lost his job just when he has a wife looking for a divorce and a pregnant daughter. But the driver (Matti Pellonpää) tells them a story that tops it. Profound sadness.

The cult director and indie favorite Jarmusch made Night on Earth in 1991 after he first made a splash with Mystery Train.  He followed it with Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers and last year’s PatersonNight on Earth is one of the few movies that I own on DVD, and it’s now available from the Criterion Collection.  But you can see it Friday on TCM. Go for it.

NIGHT ON EARTH in Paris

To Rome with Love: amusing minor Woody

The title says it all – To Rome with Love is Woody Allen’s affectionate missive to Rome, more amusing than the average greeting card but no more substantial.  It’s not great Woody, nor is it bad Woody.  But minor Woody (like To Rome with Love) is still funny and smart, even wise sometimes.

Allen cuts between four unrelated and more or less simultaneous stories.  In the first, a comedy of manners, Woody and Judy Davis play an American couple in Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pil) Roman beau and his family.  There’s a culture clash and the impulses of Woody’s character create comic havoc.

In the second (and best) tale, Alec Baldwin plays a man in his fifties who is recalling the Roman adventure of his twenties, this time imparting his life wisdom to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg).  What mature man wouldn’t want to relive his single days knowing what he now knows about women? In this case, Eisenberg’s girlfriend introduces him to her alluring but surely unreliable gal pal, played by Ellen Page.  Baldwin’s sage is warning him off, but the younger man can’t help but become entranced with a woman who strews relationship carnage behind her.  When Eisenberg thinks that he is seducing Page, Baldwin cynically points out that Page has just popped a Tic-Tac to be ready for a kiss.  When Woody has him “melt” Page’s actress with a line about her being deep enough to play Strindberg’s Miss Julie, we recall that the real Woody has dated the likes of Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, Stacy Nelkin and Mia Farrow.  It’s good stuff.

The third story, and least successful, is a farce in which a young Italian bridegroom must impress his uptight relations despite some contrived mistaken identity.

The fourth story is an allegory on today’s culture of silly and unearned celebrity.  Roberto Benigni is perfect as an ordinary Giuseppe plucked out of his hum drum routine and made an instant celebrity.  No comic can play befuddlement or nouveau entitlement like Benigni.

To Rome With Love stars the usual splendiferous Woody cast.  Judy Davis, Penelope Cruz, Alison Pil, Alec Baldwin and a host of Italian actors are all just fine, but don’t have to stretch; (this also applies to 2012’s annoyingly ever-present Greta Gerwig).  But Woody himself is outstanding, as are Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Roberto Benigni.