Jim Jarmusch's independent productions always seem to be set in some parallel universe, a place and time that is rooted in reality but just offbeat enough to have a dreamy or slightly nightmarish quality.
With "Mystery Train," Jarmusch's low-key sense of oddball comedy comes closer to mainstream entertainment than with his first two films "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Down By Law." ("Mystery Train" is also his first color film.)
But that doesn't mean it will have wide appeal. Whether you'll find this picture entertaining has a lot to do with your ability to enjoy quirky character studies that are long on development and short on action.
"Mystery Train" is actually an anthology, three stories set during the same time period in and around a fleabag hotel in downtown Memphis.
The first is largely in Japanese, with English subtitles, as we follow two young tourists from Yokohama Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and his girlfriend Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh). (Nagase and Kudoh are the best of a wonderfully talented ensemble, with each member perfectly cast.)
Giddy Mitzuko is excited to be visiting America, but she's even more excited about being in Elvis Presley's hometown. (Indeed, the specter of Presley hangs over this entire movie in a way that is at once bizarre, amusing and enchanting.)
Jun, who prefers Carl Perkins, is more quiet and subdued. He's inclined to drop deadpan observations such as his comment about Memphis: "If you took away 60 percent of the buildings in Yokohama, it would look just like this."
At one point Mitzuko accuses him of having a sad face. "That's just the way my face is," he says. Unconvinced, she smears his face with lipstick to give him a clown smile and asks, "Are you happy now?" He replies, with his standard drawn look, "I was always happy."
After a hilarious visit to Sun Rec-ords, a tourist attraction that was once the recording studio that gave Elvis his start, they check into the Arcade Hotel. There, the easygoing night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and a young bellboy (Cinque Lee, Spike Lee's younger brother) rent rooms for $22 a night. Each room has a portrait of Elvis, but no TV.
The second story has a young, recently widowed Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi), traveling by plane with the body of her dead husband, spending an emergency stopover night in Memphis. She checks into the Arcade and links up with another woman (Elizabeth Bracco), a non-stop talker, who has just left her boyfriend and is on her way out of town.
Braschi tries to relate a story she's just heard about the hitchhiking specter of Elvis, but Bracco dismisses it as an old local urban legend. Later, however, Braschi has an encounter with Elvis' ghost.
The third story, which sort of pulls together the clues that tie all three together, tells how a British blue-collar worker nicknamed "Elvis" (Joe Strummer) and his two buddies (Rick Aviles, Steve Buscemi) find themselves drunkenly robbing a convenience store and then firing a gun in the Arcade Hotel.
While interesting and well-acted, neither of the latter two stories has the charm and pizazz of the first and even that first story loses some steam about two-thirds through.
But then, Jarmusch doesn't really seem as interested in telling stories as painting portraits, developing rich characters and weaving complex texture, so that he reveals to his audience an Americana that is with us every day but probably not visible to most of us.
On that level, "Mystery Train" is a one-of-a-kind treasure or, if you include Jarmusch's other films, a three-of-a-kind treasure.
It is rated R for sex, nudity, profanity and violence.
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