As a Tom Waits fan and someone who liked Jim Jarmusch’s enjoyable avant garde western known as Dead Man (starring Johnny Depp), finding something like this film just feels like it’s up my street. A few simple set-ups where the story is more or less the same, and yet it’s not. Because characters, dialogue, music and settings are what make everything different every time. A sameness that brings everybody together in the highs and lows of life, no matter the country, language or time difference. This is Night On Earth.
Set in the present day (1991), our movie is an anthology series that has been divided up into 5 separate stories. All of the stories happen at roughly the same time, and follow the same formula; they are about a taxi driver picking up a passenger or passengers and then dropping them off at their destinations. That’s it…and then we dress each story up based on the location, the drivers and the passengers.
Our first Story begins in Los Angeles, USA and stars a 20 year old Winona Ryder as the Taxi Driver, ‘Corky’, and Gena Rowlands as Victoria Snelling, her passenger and a Talent Agent. Out of all of the tales, this is the weakest 1, not only in humour, characters and story but also acting. While Corky is an interesting and lively character, I would consider this a lesser performance from Ryder, who had done Edward Scissorhands just the year before. The story’s themes revolve around how a book shouldn’t be judged at first glance, as Corky’s dream is different to what might be expected of her.
The second Story is set in New York and stars Armin Mullier-Stahl as Helmut Grokenberger, the Taxi Driver, and Giancario Esposito as Yoyo, his passenger. This chapter takes a different pace; our passenger, Yoyo, is a Latino-African-American man trying to get a taxi to Brooklyn. For those wondering, there are several reasons for cabs refusing to go to Brooklyn from Manhattan; Cab drivers in Manhattan make less money if they go to Brooklyn, the neighbourhood wasn’t very safe in 1991 (Keeping in mind, this was the neighbourhood that shaped Mike Tyson before he got into boxing), and chances of not getting your fare were a possibility. Racism would only be 1 possible reason to not take a black man to Brooklyn. After several attempts, he is then picked up by the Cab driver named Helmut. Helmut is from East Germany (1 year after the whole country was united again), is still learning english, and doesn’t know how to drive an automatic car. Yoyo then volunteers to drive himself to his destination, while having an interesting conversation with Helmut…He then picks up his fiery sister-in-law Angela, which is where things really get noisy in the car. It’s a very funny and very touching story about 2 very different men sharing a cab. One knows all about where he’s from – while the other is still coming to terms with this new culture he has stepped into.
The Third Story is set in Paris, France and stars Isaach De Bankole as the unnamed Ivory Coast-born Taxi Driver, and Beatrice Dalle as the passenger, who happens to be a Blind Woman. It could be seen as a step down from the New York 1, but at the same time it was still a fascinating and funny story. One thing you notice at the beginning of this story is how much crap Africans can take from each other, let alone racists. Much like how the English would have mocked the Irish (and vice vera), our Ivory Coast driver is being heckled by 2 men from Cameroon, who mock his nationality by making a french pun that I won’t spoil…then of course he picks up the blind woman after abruptly dropping the 2 men off…and forgetting to get his fare from them. The Blind woman is incredibly bright, and refuses to be treated any differently from someone who can see. Leading to an interesting journey that’s…very french.
The Fourth Story is set in Rome, Italy, and stars Life Is Beautiful actor Roberto Benigni as the unnamed driver, and Paolo Bonacelli as a priest who becomes his passenger. It’s about 3 or 4 in the morning, and the driver finds out that his passenger is a priest, who he then teases with his car before picking him up. Afterwards, he decides to smoke in the car (despite the sign) and then proceeds to use this trip to confess his sins to the priest. It’s not as touching as the New York 1, but it is by far 1 of the funniest pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed! Roberto was literally on fire in this role, and I couldn’t stop laughing! You would think it was written by Martin McDonagh, it’s just so black humoured.
Finally, the Fifth Story is set in Helsinki, Finland and stars the late Finnish actor and musician Matti Pellonpaa as Mika the Taxi Driver, and here he has 3 very drunk men enter his cab at 4AM. This 1 is by far the most serious and also the saddest story on the list with little hints of humour here and there – but very humane in tone.
The music is by Tom Waits, and it can be argued that I just witnessed a version of “Tom Waits: The Movie”. Not so much on the man himself, but rather the people he writes about. It brings an extra layer of depth, especially in any scenes where you aren’t listening to the characters talking, and are just watching the world go by from inside the cab. There is almost like a time-capsule element to what was shown. A familiar, yet unfamiliar world. There today, but also gone yesterday.
The cinematography is excellent and likely done without a studio ($2 million budget in 1991). Every scene was perfectly shot without being too over the top or silly.
The locations are beautifully chosen, providing a sight-seeing aspect that doesn’t get experienced too much in cinema. It also provides us with the variety that the world offers, even at night time. For instance; in 1991, Rome had hardly any street lamps, with the exception of some corners. Helsinki on the other hand is lit up like a white christmas tree in the early hours of the morning. It could be seen from a long way away if you were out of town, and maybe that’s the point…especially in winter.
Would I recommend Night On Earth? Yes, if you’re at least 18 and looking to expand your outlook on both cinema and the world around you without moving too far from your chair. Personally I love this movie and hope it gets more recognition as we enter the 30th year of its creation.
Acting: ***3/4 (Los Angeles) ****1/2 (New York) **** (Paris) ****3/4 (Rome) ***** (Helsinki) – Overall:
Characters: ***3/4 (Los Angeles) ***** (New York) ****1/2 (Paris) ***** (Rome) ***** (Helsinki) – Overall:
Story: ***1/4 (Los Angeles) ***** (New York) **** (Paris) ***** (Rome) ****3/4 (Helsinki) – Overall:
Los Angeles: ****1/4
New York: *****