A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Down by Law" is a movie about cheap whiskey and black coffee, all-night drunks and lost jobs, and the bad times you can have with good-time girls. It tells the story of a pimp, an unemployed disc jockey and a bewildered Italian tourist and how they escape from jail and wind up slogging through the Louisiana bayous looking for a decent place to have breakfast.
It's like a collage made out of objects from old gangster movies, old blues songs and old jailhouse stories. At the end, it's like a line of dialogue: "It's a sad and beautiful world," someone says. Someone else should say, "Yeah, but so what?" The movie was directed by Jim Jarmusch. You may remember his "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984), a deadpan black-and-white comedy in which three strangely assorted friends decided it was too cold in Cleveland in the winter, went to Florida and lost all their money at the dog races. "Down by Law" has the same sort of feeling. It's about two people who choose to be losers and a third who has bought the American Dream.
The movie stars Tom Waits, whose sandpaper voice sounds like he's pushing his words through three layers of hangovers. The other two guys are played by John Lurie, who was the Hungarian-American poker player in "Stranger Than Paradise," and Roberto Benigni, a previously unknown Italian actor who resembles a cross between Father Guido Sarducci and Woody Allen. They meet in a Louisiana jail cell through a series of misadventures in which two of the guys are framed and the third is severely misunderstood.
No cell is large enough to hold these three. Lurie and Waits hate each other. But hate is nothing compared to the emotions they feel for the Italian, who commits the unpardonable sin of being cheerful and constantly pleased with himself. Eventually, the three prisoners escape, and the movie follows them through the swamps as they slog through every cliche Jarmusch can remember.