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Taken for a Ride

Jim Jarmusch journeys to the limits of cinematic self-consciousness with The Limits of Control; Ramin Bahrani explores new climes, but not minds, in Goodbye Solo.

By Mark Jenkins

JIM JARMUSCH'S ESSENTIAL INSIGHT is that the only film genre that endures is comedy. All the others have been reduced to jokes by overreaching or overexposure, as the writer-director's latest movie demonstrates by coolly parodying hitman, thriller, spy, and even spaghetti Western flicks. If Jarmusch sees the humor in all these forms, however, his amusement is not contagious. The Limits of Control is a burlesque that elicits only the occasional smile, and not a single laugh.

Like many of Jarmusch's features, The Limits of Control is a road movie constructed from deadpan vignettes. Beginning at an unidentified airport, a nameless man (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankol&ecute;) makes his way south through Spain, from Madrid to Seville to a rural area near the Mediterranean. A suave and solitary character out of Jean-Paul Melville, or John Woo, or Sergio Leone, the guy is clearly on a mission.

Yet the Lone Man (as the credits have it) is not in a hurry. He sits in cafes, visits museums, and has cryptic conversations with various contacts, who exchange matchboxes with him and repeat lines from the abstract, existential instructions delivered by his original handler, the French-Creole-speaking Creole (Alex Descas). The other dialogue is in English or Spanish (which the Lone Man must regularly acknowledge he doesn't speak), with a few lines in Japanese or Arabic.

Sort of a greatest-hits reel, the film reintroduces us to players from Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray) and Mystery Train (Yuki Kudo), as well such first-timers as Paz de la Huerta, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Hiam Abbass. Most of them play the Lone Man's mysterious contacts, so they get but one conversation with him.

And what are they talking about? As befits a journey that begins on Air Lumiere, the subject is cinema. Blonde (Swinton) is the most garrulous, mentioning Suspicion and Lady from Shanghai and noting that such classic thrillers don't actually make much sense. Guitar (Hurt) refers to "an oddly beautiful Finnish film" that must be La Vie de Boheme by Jarmusch fellow traveler Aki Kaurismäki. (Jarmusch even had a cameo in the Finn's Leningrad Cowboys Go America.) The Lone Man's climatic line — the only one that might draw a chuckle — is also a comment on the preposterousness of thriller plotting.

As for Nude (de la Huerta), she doesn't talk about movies because she is movies: A naked temptress who materializes in the Lone Man's Madrid apartment, packing a gun, she's the archetypal Bond Girl as well as a reference to Jean-Luc Godard, who once proclaimed that "all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun." (One critic also claims that she's posed on the Lone Man's bed in homage to Brigitte Bardot in Godard's Contempt.)

Beautifully shot by longtime Wong Kong-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle, The Limits of Control is impeccably composed and artfully color-coordinated. This too is part of the joke: The Lone Man wears the same suit every day he's in one location, but changes to a different color for each city. (The adventure will be over when he switches to casual clothes.) The physical world is crucial to this anti-CGI film, and Jarmusch has revealed that he was inspired by actual objects both large (a modernist Madrid apartment tower) and small (matchboxes of a design that's common in Africa). The soundtrack is also bears the mark of hip collector: It's by Boris, a Japanese noise-rock act.

So anti-psychological it could be the work of a "new novel"-ist like Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Limits of Control is all images and references. Both have always be important to Jarmusch, but he's sometimes also managed to imbue his films with humanity (Stranger than Paradise) or even spirituality (Dead Man). In critiquing the thriller, however, Jarmusch has made a movie that's almost as airless as contemporary Hollywood formula fare like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Yeah, those mid-century thrillers didn't really make much sense. But at least they weren't paralyzed by self-knowledge.

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL — 2009, 116 min; at Landmark E Street. and the Avalon Theater.

DRAWING EXTREMELY FAVORABLE REVIEWS as it rolls out slowly to those U.S. cities that still boast arthouses, Goodbye Solo looks to be Ramin Bahrani's breakthrough film. But that may not be good for the director, or his fans, in the long term. Bahrani's third feature is his slightest, with lots of his trademark working-class texture, but little psychological depth. The filmmaker's first cinematic trip out of New York doesn't take him in a fruitful direction.

Bahrani is Irani-American, and his work recalls such Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, who mix documentary and fiction and often focus on children. At first, Goodbye Solo seems to be an American rewrite of Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, in which a man searches for an help with his suicide, a major taboo in Islam. Bahrani's film opens with a Winston-Salem, N.C. cabbie, Senegalese-born Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), driving a grizzled, cranky fare. Almost immediately, William (Red West) offers $1,000 for a future one-way trip to a nearby peak.

Outgoing to a fault, Solo tries to banter with William about jumping from the mountain, but stops laughing when he comes to suspect that his passenger intends to do just that. Even after a night of alcohol-nourished bonding at a bar at which he seems to be the only white guy, William won't confide in Solo. So the taxi driver starts to investigate the older man's life, trying to determine why he seems prepared to end it. When not studying for the exam he thinks will get him a job as a flight attendant, Solo stakes out the movie theater where William spends a lot of his evenings.

After a fight with his heavily pregnant wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva), Solo impulsively invites himself to stay with William, who's just sold his house and moved temporarily into a motel. The two maintain an odd-couple relationship for a few days, and William becomes fond of Solo's stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), a preteen so wise and sensitive she might have wandered off the set of a Hollywood movie. Finally, Quiera gives birth, just before the date William has set for his one-way journey.

Bahrani's previous film, Chop Shop, was the tale of Solo-like outsider Alejandro, a kid whose arrival in the U.S. was unexplained but probably illegal. Making his way in a New York that lacked all the certainties of middle-class life, the boy toiled as an auto-repair go-fer in Queens, while planning to make his fortune running a food van. Like Solo, Alejandro was intent on saving another person, but the connection was more clear: His obsession was not some moody stranger but his older sister, who was at risk of falling into prostitution.

Solo and William's relationship feels more contrived, yet that's not the fundamental problem with Goodbye Solo. The film should turn on Solo's character, but the cabbie doesn't really change over the course of the story, and reveals little to the viewer that isn't evident in the first scene. Like Alejandro, Solo is prone to grand illusions; he exaggerates, both to himself and others, the possibility of becoming a flight attendant. That subplot, however, is not integral to the story. What happens is that Solo learns a few things about William, but nothing revelatory, and even less about himself. Goodbye Solo shows us downscale, multi-cultural Winston-Salem from a taxi driver's perspective, but it doesn't really show us the taxi driver.

GOODBYE SOLO — 2009, 91 min; at Landmark E Street.