Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Willie (John Lurie) is the personification of America. He lives in New York City, dresses like a prohibition era gangster, drinks Budweiser, aggressively defends the flexibility of his frozen tv dinners, and he has the freedom to roam across the country without the frame of mind to enjoy it. He gambles to win money, though he does so by cheating (counting cards, working with a friend), and he uses that to finance his aimless lifestyle. He doesn’t know what he wants or what he fears. He only has a vague idea of what direction he wants to go and he follows it.
When Willie and Eddie (Richard Edson) drive to Cleveland to visit Willie’s Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), with whom it’s hinted he has feelings for, Eddie brings up how he didn’t know about Willie’s Hungarian ethnicity, and Willie gets defensive, stating that he’s American. Stranger Than Paradise presents America as a collage of consumerism, dreams, time and restlessness. It’s like a hamster wheel that lets you tire yourself out without going anywhere.
At least, that’s America to Willie, Eddie and Eva. They are each disenchanted with their respective lives in New York and Cleveland and each goes to the other city looking for a sense of reprieve. When that runs out, they head to Florida, and briefly ride the wave of ecstasy from a hastily made plan, particularly one that involves escape.
We know that Florida won’t be the oasis they imagine it to be even before they get there. We’ve already seen the letdown of other made plans. When Eva first comes to New York, she and Willie spend all their time in the apartment, watching tv, playing cards, vacuuming and waiting. This is Willie’s life, and it’s certainly not Eva’s idea of life. He starts to take a liking to her, going so far as to buy her a dress which she flatly says is ugly to his face. Eva leaves, wearing the dress to appease Willie, but then she dumps it in the trash on her way out. New York isn’t the heaven she may have thought it to be.
When Willie and Eddie head to Cleveland, they remark at how cold everything is and how it all looks the same, even hundreds of miles away from New York. Eva takes them to Lake Erie, and it’s shrouded in snow and fog so that all they see is white. It’s a let down, and they seem resigned to the disappointing view.
So when they go to Florida, there is no reason to believe it will be what they want to believe it will be. Upon arriving at the cramped motel, Eva remarks how it looks familiar, and that’s because it is. Despite the differences in each city, they’re all the same, because their lives aren’t defined by where they go so much as who they’re with and what they bring with them.
In Florida, Eddie insists they go to the dog track, leaving before Eva awakens. When they come back, having lost almost all their money, they’re pissed, and Eva is furious that they left her behind in a strange land. Suddenly Florida isn’t a vacation destination, it’s foreign territory.
Willie and Eddie decide to hit the race tracks (horse racing this time), and Willie refuses to let Eva go with them. It’s a repeat of a scene in New York in which Eddie invited her out, but Willie decided she should stay behind, thinking he’s protecting her but really just trapping her. While they’re out, Eva goes out and buys a hat not unlike the ones Willie and Eddie wear, and she is mistaken for a drug dealer and given a large stack of cash.
She returns to the motel and leaves a note for the boys, letting them know she’s leaving. When they return, full of ecstasy from winning big at the race track, they discover the note and set off to the airport to stop her from leaving. This is America, they might as well be saying, and there’s no sense in leaving even when things don’t always go well. But in her case, things have ended up rather well, and she still decides to leave.
After some confusion, Eddie watches the plane to Budapest take off, believing both Willie and Eva to be onboard. He shakes his head, muttering “what are you going to do in Budapest?” and drives away. We then see Eva return to the motel, having decided to stay.
America feels like a trap. It gives you enough freedom and success to keep you around, but these characters will always be kept on a leash. Despite the isolation of the three protagonists, however, the ending doesn’t feel hopeless. These characters never had a friendship based on much more than loose family ties (which Willie has been trying to escape) and a shared desire to leave wherever it is they are. It makes sense that they end up on their own, and it feels like they’ll soon realize that they can’t run away from themselves. The film left me with an impression that they’re on their way to learning a little something about themselves, something the audience has already learned.
These characters are anything but self-aware. They absorb the world around them in an aggressive, kind of selfish way, burning through it and then wondering why they feel burned out themselves. Now isolated, and thus having to depend only on themselves, it feels like they might finally change their attitude, though that’s also only speculation.
I guess what Jarmusch might be trying to say is that life isn’t a vacation or paradise, no matter how hard you try. The highs are balanced out by the lows, and by trying at all cost to avoid the lows, then the highs won’t be that great. These characters constantly enter a situation or a city with an expectation of it filling their heart’s desire, and it never does. But that’s not the city’s problem, it’s theirs.