Paint drying. Photosynthesis. Rush-hour traffic on the 405.
All these activities would be more entertaining to watch — and probably speedier — than Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control.”
The writer-director’s latest contains so many of the themes and aesthetic choices that have permeated his previous movies, it almost plays like a parody: the meandering protagonist, the self-serious philosophizing, the cryptic dialogue, the excruciating pace. Individually, his films (like “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” “Coffee and Cigarettes” and especially “Broken Flowers”) often have their compelling moments. But taken together and presented as repetitively as Jarmusch does here, all these signature details make “The Limits of Control” seem insufferably pretentious.
The “story,” for lack of a better word, follows a quietly intimidating criminal (Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankole) as he travels through Spain on an assignment. First, he travels to Madrid where he stays in a dramatically circular high-rise apartment building. (Jarmusch spends so much time there and films its unique curvature so obsessively, it’s as if he began with the building, then crafted the rest of the movie around it.) Then it’s off to Sevilla by train, followed by the rugged Spanish countryside.
His daily routine consists of getting out of bed fully dressed after remaining awake all night, performing tai chi, sitting at a cafe and drinking espresso from two individual cups, then waiting until a contact approaches him.
Each person begins by asking him, in Spanish, “You don’t speak Spanish, do you?” which grows old quickly. Each gives him the same kind of matchbox containing a small piece of paper, which contains a code, which he reads before stuffing it in his mouth and swallowing it with the aforementioned espresso. Each tries to engage him in a discussion about life’s ephemeral nature with such trite observations as: “Nothing is real. Everything is imagined.” Or: “Among us, there are those who are not among us.” Regardless, he remains mute.
Among his maddeningly mysterious partners in crime are Tilda Swinton in a white wig, white cowboy hat and leopard-print boots; Gael Garcia Bernal in a pickup truck that reads “La Vida No Vale Nada” (“Life isn’t worth anything”) across the tailgate; John Hurt carrying a well-used guitar and babbling about bohemia (though he is a rare bright spot); and Paz de la Huerta, who repeatedly shows up naked in his bed. That’s her schtick. Well, sometimes she’s wearing a see-though plastic raincoat, but our guy is so stoic and self-possessed, he wants nothing to do with her.
Jarmusch obsessively follows all the minutiae of his ritual — oh, and did we mention? De Bankole’s character has no name. Neither does anyone else, one of many precious conceits. Eventually he reaches his destination, where he finds “Broken Flowers” star Bill Murray, who arrives too late to make the movie worthwhile.
Nevertheless, all these mind-numbing proceedings are at least shot beautifully by Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai’s frequent cinematographer, in his typical dreamy style. Then again, Doyle could shoot paint drying and almost make it interesting.