Saturday, April 19, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive


Grade: 87/A-

“Why is life worth living?” So asks Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan, as he runs down a list that includes Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, and the face of the girl he loves. Jim Jarmusch, the eternally cool hipster director behind tales of alienation and emptiness like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, not to mention the protracted death rattle of his 1995 masterpiece Dead Man, isn’t the first person one would expect to pick up from that monologue. Yet his new film Only Lovers Left Alive is almost the anti-Dead Man, a film that posits if you’re going to live forever, you’d better find someone great to share it with.

Married vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have lived for centuries, influencing musicians, scientists, and other artists. Adam has become a reclusive rock musician in Detroit, constantly recording and asking unassuming rock-and-roll fan Ian (Anton Yelchin) to run odd jobs for him. Eve, meanwhile, spends her time in Tangiers.

Both of them have found ways to drink blood without having to harm anyone, Adam through a blood-bank doctor (Jeffrey Wright), and Eve through another vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, and yes, he’s that Christopher Marlowe).  When Eve senses Adam’s depression (he refers to humans as “zombies” and speaks openly about suicide), she travels home to bring his spirits up. But their peace is threatened as Eve’s impulsive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes for a visit and fans of Adam’s music start to flock around the house.

The film’s first half deals a bit with the need to control vampiric urges, not to mention the drug-like euphoria that passes over them as they partake. But it’s more delightful when Jarmusch focuses on what hundreds of years of life has done for these people, whether they’re adding to their endless knowledge of music, science, and literature, touring Jack White’s house, or taking simple delight in what new technology can bring them (video chats for their long-distance relationship, the possibility of blood popsicles). Jarmusch observes these ancients among modernity with a typical deadpan, yet it’s hard not to sense a greater trace of warmth as Hiddleston and Swinton (both spectacularly ethereal) battle wits during a chess game or dance during Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.”

When Wasikowska shows up in the second half, the film becomes more driven by incident than by behavior, and it can’t help but feel a smidge more deterministic as Ava starts to hang with humans – with so many (admittedly funny) hints about what “happened last time,” it’s hard not to know what’s coming. Yet the film gains cumulative emotional weight as Adam is forced out of his funk, forced to care about his own life as well as Eve’s. Only a filmmaker as cool as Jarmusch could end up making a vampire film his warmest effort, but maybe it takes an eternity (and the right person) to get the best perspective of things.

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