Picks and Pans Review: Down by Law

UPDATED 10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

It's always a bad sign when you start rooting for the poisonous snakes. Those viewers who are still awake midway into this movie may well find themselves doing just that, however. Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni play New Orleans jail escapees lost in a swamp, and when Waits begins to worry about how many serpents there are in the area, it looks as if something might actually happen. No such luck. Not even a frog shows up. Director Jim Jarmusch, trying to follow up his 1984 cult success Stranger Than Paradise, mostly has his characters sit around and insult each other. There seems to be a lot of improvising of dialogue. Let's hope, anyway, that nobody bothered to write down such lines as "Holy Toledo! Can you believe this?" Waits, the growly blues singer, has a dark, simian kind of presence, and Benigni, an Italian comedian, provides scraps of amusement by quoting American poets, including one he calls Bob Frost, in Italian. Lurie seems to undergo a personality transplant offscreen, changing inexplicably from a surly pimp into an aw-shucks kind of guy. The problem, though, is Jarmusch. While he has a strong visual sense, filling the screen (in black and white) with Fellini-esque images of seedy New Orleans neighborhoods and scummy swamps, he seems to prefer tedium to plot. This is at best a self-parody of over-intellectualized, underproduced films. You could create more impact by throwing feathers at a marshmallow. (R)

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