If Permanent Vacation hinted at a director to watch, Stranger Than Paradise put Jim Jarmusch on the map, and then some. For many, it is ground-zero of the modern independent film movement, intentionally giving off a hipster vibe, at least partially defining itself through its soundtrack, and filled to the rafters with bleak, bone-dry irony. The characters in Stranger Than Paradise play poker, because there's no more appropriate activity in this deadpan universe. Every minimalist shot, perfectly set-up for aesthetic effect and then left there until the scene ends, captures the stifling ennui of this world, a boredom that pervades every frame without ever making the experience boring for those watching this world.
In the center of all this is Willie (John Lurie), who lives in a ratty New York apartment watching T.V. all day. His Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) comes to visit, and he promptly shuts her off from the world. He doesn't want here in his apartment, but he also can't stand the idea of going outside to take her on a tour of the city, so he bids her to just stay in the room and be seen and not heard. If she can manage also not to be seen, more's the better. Then Eva nicks some food from the grocery store, and her cousin begins to show signs of respect.
Jarmusch structures the film through a series of vignettes, grouped into three acts, though he certainly doesn't need to do so because of the movie's plot-heavy nature. Large swaths of nothing happen in the film, which is of course the point. Willie and Eva lounge around and watch television, and Eva never sees anything of New York other than the inside of Willie's apartment. Willie's friend Eddie (Richard Edson) develops a crush on Eva, though perhaps not in the sense that you would think -- later, he and Willie tag along on a date Eva has with another man and he seems nonplussed. When Eva leaves to live with Aunt Lottie in Ohio, both men are clearly upset even though their frozen demeanor never changes. So, they decide to travel to Ohio, "rescue" Eva and, ultimately, move to Florida.
It sounds like a rebellious youth picture, something you'd expect James Dean or a young Brando to be in, which is why Stranger Than Paradise is so funny. Willie and Eddie spend all of their time indoors, yet when they get to a Cleveland blanketed in snow, Eddie hysterically deadpans, "You know it's funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same." There are no punchlines in the film, only ironic juxtapositions and subtle payoffs: we are presented with Willie, hipster scum who sits in his darkened apartment, the lowest of the low. Then we meet Eddie. Jarmusch sets up Willie's slight moral advantage in how the two pass their time: Willie bets on the horse races, but Eddie goes to the dog tracks.
But there is also a current of, not drama, but what would certainly be drama in another film. Willie decides to go to Eva because he's bored in New York, and when he finds himself just as bored in Cleveland he fixates on that brief flash of fun he had with his cousin. Thus, he aborts his trip to Florida, correctly realizing -- with the help of Eddie's straight-faced proclamation -- that a change of scenery isn't really a change at all. His paradise is Eva, though obviously not in a romantic way. Eddie too wants Eva, though his desire almost surely includes romance. For Eva, her paradise is America, the land that birthed her favorite artist, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
As a series of mishaps build in the final act, all three characters see their ideas of paradise fade in their ennui-filled perspectives; Eva, bored with the U.S.A., attempts to book a flight back Europe, while Willie accidentally ends up on a plane himself. The final shot, of one character returning to their motel room to find it empty, is as filled with pitch-black humor as it is a moment of serious regret. The unrelenting bleakness of the film does not posit that this is what life is really like, but that these characters, unable to take true pleasure in anything, can't attain paradise because they don't even know what makes them truly happy.
Jarmusch almost completely hones his minimalistic style with Stranger Than Paradise, and he has an incredible gift for, without moving the camera or throwing any sort of effects into the frame, suggesting a comedic undertone when nothing on-screen would inherently create one. His camera stands outside of America, looking in on its own country with interest and scientific objectivity; Jarmusch does not use his outsider feel to break down the "illusion" of America but to attack those who would blindly believe in that image without looking inside oneself first.