Movie Review: “Only Lovers Left Alive” gives us vampires in a Jarmusch setting

ImageAging indie hipster Jim Jarmusch finally gets around to making his vampire movie with “Only Lovers Left Alive,” a droll, dry and atmospheric character study in the Jarmusch style.
The director who brought us “Night on Earth,” “Mystery Train” and “Broken Flowers” tells the story of a couple of undead lovers, together through the centuries, now separated by an ocean and half a continent.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a musician. And having had several lifetimes to practice, he’s mastered guitars, violins and lutes. He once passed a string quartet to Schubert.
“Only the adagio” movement, he sniffs. “Just to get it ‘out there.’”
Now, he’s holed up in an abandoned Detroit mansion where the Addams Family would have felt right at home. He collects old records and rare guitars and plays his morose, metal dirges onto vintage recording gear, all with the aid of Ian (Anton Yelchin).
Ian doesn’t know Adam’s secret, just his musical notoriety. Adam is hiding from his fans. All Ian knows is that the guy is a messy housekeeper, that he seems depressed and that he pays for everything with cash, lots of it.
Eve (Tilda Swinton) stays in a Tangier apartment cluttered with books of every language — poetry, plays, novels. She devours them, and occasionally goes out to collect a goody bag of blood from her aged friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, perfect). Yes, THAT Christopher Marlowe, “Kit” to Shakespeare’s “Will,” alleged author of some of the Immortal Bard’s immortal works. Kit knows Adam, too.
“How I wish I’d met him before I wrote ‘Hamlet’!”
Adam gets his goodies by masquerading as Dr. Faust, slipping into the hospital where Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) is his blood-supply connection. Watson, a regular Dr. Feelgood for the blood-craving, calls Adam “Dr. Strangelove” and “Dr. Caligari,” for laughs.
Eve senses Adam’s state of mind, Skypes him (vampires prefer iPhones, wouldn’t you know it) and travels first class (Air Lumiere) “only at night” to be with him.
The Jarmusch touches here are the self-aware little jokes, Eve hanging out in the Moroccan Cafe Mille et Une Nuit (Cafe A Thousand and One Nights), flying on a Daisy Buchanan (“The Great Gatsby”) passport. His characters pass judgment on the human race, “zombies,” they call us, and on the human history they’ve observed over the hundreds of years.
“Did you play chess with Byron?”
Jarmusch loves ruined towns, and Detroit offers a smorgasbord of an urban desert — empty neighborhoods, collapsing factories, all part of Adam’s nightly tours in his ancient Jaguar XJS. A biting joke — Detroit “will bloom” when America’s “Southern cities burn” — a global warming prophecy.
The effects are very limited, but so is the story’s dramatic tension. Only the arrival of Eve’s bratty younger sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska) stirs thing up. Wasikowska is the most animated player in it, with Swinton and Hiddleston (“Thor”) playing everything on a low simmer.
The lack of urgency may bore those unused to Jarmusch’s style and pacing. But his languor is his calling card. The deliberate pacing makes the offhand jokes and dry observations seem funnier than they are, at least in this case. This borders on being “cute.” And dull.
You’d think, post “Twilight,” that the guy was just selling out, as if that could ever happen.
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MPAA Rating: R for language and brief nudity
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Jeffrey Wright, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Credits: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:03

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