Jim Jarmusch followed up his much-lauded, anti-narrative film Stranger than Paradise with the more comical Down by Law, but despite the lighter tone, it is a bold film which directly challenges the domination of the classical Hollywood narrative while remaining true to the director’s unique vision. Opening with slow, extended sequences expressing the aimless lives of Zack and Jack, Jarmusch continues the life-between-the-drama approach he’s known for, but throws a kink in the wheel with the addition of Roberto Benigni as the comic relief. At first it appears that his role is simply that – a relief from the mundanity of the other two characters – but he is intelligently used as a commentary on the conventional narrative itself. Throughout the film, he’s the one creating movement in the narrative, driving the story forward by convincing the others to escape, keeping them together as they travel and falling in love on their final stoping point. In a sense, it’s as if a Hollywood character was thrown into a film like Stranger than Paradise simply to make it more accessible, but Jarmusch is clearly too smart to make such simplistic use of this. Roberto’s presence in the film is something of a comic miracle as he crosses paths with Zack early in the film and somehow ends up being put in the same prison cell later on. This, along with the intentionally over-the-top nature of the character and his deliberately ridiculous character arc complete with happy ending, is evidence of Jarmusch self-consciously using him to comment on the manipulative and wholly unrealistic character types of those other films. He puts his faith and career into lovable losers like Zack and Jack who help him represent the simple beauty of moments of everyday life, so it’s no surprise that the funniest and most touching scenes of Down by Lawoccur in the very same manner. Scenes like the unforgettable “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” sequences are hilarious and magical because they come from the materials of aimless, bullshitting conversations rather than in service of a contrived story. Of course, it’d be silly to suggest that this film isn’t contrived, but only inasmuch as it is critical of the devices it mocks. Its soul is the same as all Jarmusch films, but here he digs a bit deeper into the roots of his own methodology and that to which he is opposed. The fact that he does all this within his funniest and probably oddest film makes it all the more impressive.
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