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Friday, January 26, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Mystery Train' -- Jarmusch's Film Exposes Pop-Culture Excesses

XXX 1/2 ``Mystery Train,'' with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Nicoletta Braschi, Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Varsity. ``R'' - Restricted, due to brief nudity, mild profanity. (English subtitles for some scenes.)

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If Elvis Presley is spinning in his grave - and he should be - perhaps Jim Jarmusch's ``Mystery Train'' will give him a few moments of peace and smiles.

This deadpan, three-part comedy about Presley exploitation is just as drily witty as Jarmusch's 1984 prize-winner, ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' and it's much more accessible. Anyone who's had it with Elvis sightings, seances and posthumous merchandising of The King is in for a wonderful time.

Jarmusch's cooler-than-thou hipster attitude may have baffled some audiences and critics for his earlier films, but it's hard to miss the point of the humor in ``Mystery Train.'' While Jarmusch hasn't really broadened his approach or decided to talk down to the shopping-mall audience, he has chosen material that is more immediately understandable.

If you've grown up with rock music, you automatically have a stake in the Presley legend. There's nothing esoteric about that. Jarmusch simply plugs into the prevailing mood of skepticism and disgust about the commercialization and deification of the dead Elvis.

In a deftly handled, gently hilarious opening segment, ``Far From Yokohama,'' a punkish Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) visit Memphis. She wants to head straight for Graceland, while he's a Carl Perkins fan and prefers to start their tour with a trip to Sun Studios.

They argue (in English-subtitled Japanese) over who was the greatest rock star. They get stuck with a robotic tour guide at Sun, and they fumble with English and money at a seedy hotel. She shows him a scrapbook she's put together about Elvis' various incarnations and look-alikes, among them the Buddha, the Statue of Liberty and Madonna.

Episode No. 2, ``A Ghost,'' concerns a stranded, distracted, recently widowed Italian woman (Nicoletta Braschi), who is so vulnerable to sales pitches that she gets stuck with a pile of unwanted magazines, a $20 fee for a stupid story about Elvis' ghost, and a freeloading, non-stop chatterbox of a roommate (Elizabeth Bracco). The widow is in such a state by the end of the day that she thinks she sees Presley (Stephen Jones) talking to her in a gold lame suit.

The final and most serious episode, ``Lost in Space,'' concerns a liquor-store robbery involving the disturbed Englishman the chatterbox is leaving (Joe Strummer), his apparent brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) and a truck driver (Rick Aviles) whose chief misfortune is that he carries the name of a character on a 1960s TV show he hates. They end their drunken night at the rundown Arcade Hotel.

In ``Mystery Train,'' all roads lead to the Arcade, a Memphis dive that has no television sets, some barely furnished rooms and a spacey front-desk clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and bellboy (Cinque Lee), who argue over plums, hotel uniforms, fast-food commercials and Elvis' weight on Jupiter (they propose that he would have weighed 648 pounds there at the time of his death). Each room is decorated with a portrait of The King.

All three stories include Presley's version of ``Blue Moon'' (used for different emphasis each time) and each story concludes with the same early-morning gunshot. However, they are not told simultaneously, and only toward the end of the film do they connect in even the most casual way. Buscemi runs into the Japanese couple in the first episode, before his character has been properly introduced, but for the most part the separate stories remain separate.

Using color for the first time since his little-seen first film (``Permanent Vacation''), Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller make Memphis look as depressed and empty as the Flint, Mich., of ``Roger & Me.'' But they also find a melancholy grace in the place, and in the lives of these displaced persons.

There's something sweetly democratic about Jarmusch's appreciation of their eccentricities, whether it's Aviles' taste for marshmallows roasted over a gas flame, or Kudoh's addiction to white lipstick, or Braschi's curious mixture of alertness and disbelieving spaciness. He doesn't single out any one of them for special treatment, or for poking fun. Their obsessions are funny, yes, he seems to be saying, but so are everyone's.

Jarmusch's Memphis really does seem haunted, if not by The King, then by the trapped spirits of this collection of tourists and citizens who can't distance themselves from the Elvis worship that surrounds them. Pop culture and its excesses have rarely seemed so poignantly inescapable.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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