Jack (John Lurie) is a big-talking small-timer and ineffectual third-rate pimp who ends up in the same cell at Orleans Parish Prison as Zack (Tom Waits), an itinerant DJ with a mane of messy hair and pointy-toed shoes, and an Italian man called Roberto (Roberto Benigni), or ‘Bob’.
Jack and Zack are framed for child prostitution and murder respectively, while Bob (who speaks very little English) is locked up because he accidentally killed a man with a pool ball during a brawl.
Jack thinks he has a voodoo curse on him, while Zack merely drove a dead body to another town for a few dollars. And while Bob comes across as the most innocent of the group, he is – ironically – the only one who is actually guilty.
Jack and Zack hate each other, but that hate is nothing compared to the emotions they feel for the Italian, who commits the unpardonable sin of being constantly cheerful. Bob writes down American figures of speech and repeats them in his exaggerated accent.
When he is introduced to the phrase “You scream. I scream. We all scream for ice cream” he repeats it from his notepad and soon incites the prison to riot while chanting the phrase.
It is telling that the three end up escaping not from jail’s harshness but its mind-numbing boredom. The prison break is never shown but merely discussed.
Ellen Barkin has a wonderful cameo as Zack’s girlfriend, Laurette, whose tantrum culminates in his possessions being thrown into the street.
Joy Houck Jr