8/10
A small, sweet masterpiece
4 February 2005
Jarmusch was never much of a guy to dip in the mainstream; "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai" is about as Hollywood as you're going to get from him. His recent "Coffee and Cigarettes" might have alluded to his roots as an indie filmmaker, but its stories are monochromatic and offer little emotional variety save for the Albert Molina vignette. His best film might be this one, a miniature masterpiece that is underrated when compared to his other stuff. The basic premise of the film revolves around a New York immigrant from Eastern Europe, his goofy buddy, and his female cousin who comes to visit him and America as they jump from state to state.

There isn't much of a plot for sure, but Jarmusch more than compensates for this fact by creating three distinct characters that manage to be sweet without resorting to cheap sentiment. These guys might be rude and frivolous at times, but they never lose their sense of embarrassed compassion, nor as a direct result their humanity as complete characters as well. There's a morose wit to all of these proceedings. All three actors truly seem to have a playful camaraderie, working the motions of a natural friendship with Jarmusch's direction that shows them at their happiest only to be disappointed again and again, like a kid getting clothes instead of video games at Christmas once more. This honest and easygoing subtext doesn't include undemanding Hollywood moments of syrupy tenderness or mawkish emotion. For once, the clichéd adage of characters writing themselves is probably true here, as the film has an almost improvised quality to it. Jarmusch gets the careful balance between static ugliness and a subtext of natural warmth just right.

While the great heart of this film lies in its characterization, it's catapulted into greatness because of Jarmusch's quiet touch. In nearly every one of his films the director is obsessed with the awkward silences that make up nearly every relationship. He's much more revealing with the silences here, fleshing out character development in a car ride or while staring out at the blankness of snowy Cleveland. This brings me to my final point that Jarmusch again does with intelligence. When the characters move from city to city, they have a passionate belief that what they will find is something unbelievable. But the New York we see is a bunch of back alleys and graffiti. Cleveland is a blank white expanse, strangely vapid as opposed to pictorial. And Florida has to be the ugliest Florida ever depicted on screen, consisting mainly of a "Welcome to Florida" sign and a decrepit motel. While the main message is that life is often full of disappointments, that life is rarely full of transcendent moments, people can still connect with each other regardless of their surrounding environments. It's Jarmusch's best statement yet, and it's for these reasons this one must be seen even before even his fine "Mystery Train." The film, essentially a three-character comedy, is also thankfully kept brief, becoming genuinely meaningful and moving as a result.
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