This is the hangover you do deserve: a half noir, half slapstick, and completely ridiculous screwball doozy. With “Down By Law,” independent director Jim Jarmusch sends up the whole southern gothic — and remakes the genre in his own image.
The film stars Tom Waits as Zack, a sarcastic DJ, John Lurie as Jack, a disgruntled pimp, and Roberto Benigni as Bob, an optimistic Italian. All three men wind up in a Louisiana jail cell after being framed for various trumped-up charges.
But the big house can’t hold Zack and Jack’s clashing personalities (or Bob’s rabble-rousing cries: “I scream! You scream! We all scream for ice cream!) for very long. The trio escapes and winds its way through the bayou in a sort of postmodern retelling of Huck Finn.
Zack and Jack bicker the whole way down the Mississippi, until Bob brings them together in a hilariously gruesome scene involving a rotisserie rabbit. After another period of wandering, Bob falls in love with another Italian (Benigni’s wife in real life) and leaves Zack and Jack to work out their troubles.
Every major player in “Down By Law” is a superstar. Jarmusch is lighthearted — that’s the best Jarmusch — expanding on the minimalist stylings in his break-out film, “Stranger Than Paradise,” which followed three people who take a roadtrip from New York to Florida (via Cleveland) and become irretrievably separated after losing all of their money at dog races.
Waits was just coming off of his 1985 album “Rain Dogs,” and right at the crest of his weird phase, which began through the inspiration of his wife in the early 1980s. Jarmusch makes masterful use of Waits’ music from “Rain Dogs” — especially “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” which soundtracks the opening shots panning across the derelict home fronts of New Orleans.
Lurie, still the drummer for Sonic Youth, grouches about with the lovable bad humour Jarmusch consistently inspired in him. It’s no wonder he once enjoyed the position of being one of the two people Father John Misty followed on Twitter (the other was Kanye West).
But it’s Benigni who steals the show. He plays Bob with the same sincere levity that would win him an Academy Award for “Life Is Beautiful,” a surprisingly tasteful Holocaust-themed comedy which likely steals its title from Benigni’s final line in “Down By Law”: “Life is sad and beautiful.”
And so it is.