This is a story about three go-nowhere twenty-somethings that end up going lots of places, and every time they get there they don't think much of where they are.
There's a sense of black comedic despair that hangs over the three lives in Stranger Than Paradise. It's something I can't quite put a finger on, but they really make me smile. The film can be serious and sad or affectionate and fun. If there were ever a reaction that were more about the viewer, this might be the film that brings it.
It is, partially, some sort of a comment on our inherent immigrant nature, that thing inside that propels us forward when we don't even know what direction forward is. It can also be interpreted as a wry comment about America itself: the place where immigrants come and find fortune, or the place where immigrants come and get lost. For those of us born in America who understand how the place works already (or don't), it might be the story of some of us who are tossed about on its land, like a chasing after the wind, kind of drifting between cold states.
Willie, a Brooklynite who seems to despise employment, gets a phone call from his Hungarian aunt in Ohio. She informs him (in Hungarian, even when he instructs her to stick with English) that his cousin Eva is flying in from Budapest and will stay with him for ten days before joining her aunt in the Midwest.
Willie, who does little outside of the race track and neighborhood poker games, if he is true to the family, should be more than welcoming to Eva when she arrives on his doorstep with only a suitcase and a tape recorder. But he's not interested in any family ties, and he isn't exactly excited about her arrival. He offers her a bed for one night. She stays the whole ten days, and in the quiet of the apartment with only the TV and TV dinners, they form a strange bond, though it's rickety and built on anything outside of the norm.
Willie's friend Eddie, who also avoids a job and seems to not have a home of his own, quickly takes to Eva, probably because of her Eastern European look and her accent. The feeling doesn't seem to be mutual, but not a lot is said so it is hard to really tell. It's obvious that Eddie would like to spend time with Eva, and not in the company of Willie. It never happens. After ten days, she's off to Ohio to live with her aunt. She might have just been forgotten by the two, but the two don't have much else in their lives to think about.
At this point we fast forward a year, with the boys still playing poker in Brooklyn. Willie wants to get out of town, Eddie has a car, and they decide to take a road trip to Cleveland. The two don't seem like they've been anywhere outside of New York, so while they again don't say too much about it, it's probably a real adventure for them to go to Cleveland. I know there's a joke here, something about Cleveland, I just can't think of what it is.
The two make it to Aunt Lotte's house, and it turns out that Aunt Lotte is the only sign of life in the story. She's a hilarious side character played with spunk. The few scenes she's in are filled with energy, bringing life to a deadpan world.
Figuring out that working at a hot dog stand isn't a chapter in any book on the American Dream, Eva ends up with the boys on a road trip to Florida. Eva has the same tape recorder she arrived with in America and always plays her favorite song, "I Put a Spell On You." Willie hates the music, and she tells him, "It's Screaming Jay Hawkins, and he's a wild man, so bug off." Eddie, of course, loves it. I must admit that the song ingrains itself into the atmosphere of the film so much that one wonders what kind of spell Eva has put on the two Brooklynites, if that's even possible.
What happens in Florida is pretty weird. The three end up separated, and I'm going to guess they never see each other again.
If there were ever a mood film, this is it. The scenes are all straight forward and shot in one take, almost like each scene is divided for the theater. There's a black edit that falls between all the scenes, adjusting time and space for the need of the next quiet take.
The story, too, is divided in half. In "The New World," where Eva first arrives in New York, greeted by no one and navigating the empty streets on her own, she walks past a clue spray painted on a garage door: "U.S. OUT OF EVERYWHERE YANKEE GO HOME." From the beginning we see that this land might either outright reject you, or ask you to leave.
When the three head off to Florida we're in the film's second half: "Paradise." They imagine pelicans and flamingos, white beaches and girls in bikinis. But Florida is in many ways a dying man's version of paradise -- retirees head there live out their lives and find it, but they do so only after they've actually been in the state for a while.
I don't know how anything in Florida is actually "Stranger Than" paradise. But the film could also be called Escape From Paradise, because it seems like none of the three will end up there in the end. We really don't know. They'll each plod along in their own go-nowhere haze, one wealthier, one in a bit of a living stupor, and the other so far gone he won't be seen anymore. I get the feeling they were always separated by something, even in their few brief moments together.