Tales of Caffeine and Nicotine
|Starring:||Robert Benigni, Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, RZA, GZA, Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina|
Finally! “Coffee and Cigarettes” is the movie that Jim Jarmusch has needed to make ever since his wonderful sophomore effort, 1984’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” A collection of 11 short films made between the years 1986-2003 in which the different characters find themselves indulging in the titular pleasures, “Coffee and Cigarettes” is arguably Jarmusch’s most overt attempt at comedy, yet it also features his trademark visual minimalism, which remains a unifying element throughout the course of the movie. This film is, in the most literal sense, a document of people sitting around talking, but with very few of the negatives that description implies.
Jarmusch’s detractors usually point out his work’s one overriding flaw: a snail moves at a faster pace than his films. While there’s no denying that, generally, his movies are slow, “Coffee and Cigarettes” provides the perfect antidote to that cinematic poison. Because of its structure, any time a short starts to get bogged down, it’s usually over before you feel the urge to check your watch (the one exception is “No Problem,” which seems to possess the uncanny ability to make time stand still). But with its predominantly perfect grasp of understated humor, the majority of the shorts feel like they end much too soon.
Shot in black and white with a host of different cinematographers, the film’s reductive visuals clear the way for the performances, and we are treated to a variety of very good ones. In far and away the film’s acting highlight, Cate Blanchett plays two roles — that of a movie star doing a press junket and also her disgruntled cousin who is visiting her between interviews — in a short called appropriately entitled “Cousins.” The piece is remarkable on a filmmaking level too. Jarmusch frequently captures the characters in a two-shot, and it’s just about impossible to detect any sort of technical manipulation on the screen (that’s why it’s called movie magic, I suppose). Musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, playing themselves, have a memorable, uncomfortable exchange in a diner in “Somewhere in California,” where the former explains that he has just performed roadside surgery and is “living in that place where (music and medicine) overlap.” The movie’s oddest — and most comical — grouping finds the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA dispensing advice to Bill Murray, who is incognito as a coffee shop waiter, about how he can cure his throat ailment. The best moment, however, is a piece which finds actor Alfred Molina explaining to British actor/television personality Steve Coogan that he has traced his family tree and discovered that the two men are cousins, much to the consternation of the cynical Coogan.
The actors who play themselves are most often doing exaggerated riffs on their own public personalities. Jarmusch uses the same visual construction in most of the shorts, and even has a few characters from the different pieces share dialogue. There is a pure feeling of fun that the film exudes, and while it might not be off base to call this a vanity project, it isn’t one that is hopelessly insular and only relevant to its creator. Whereas in the past decade Jarmusch has taken a more tangibly self-serious approach to his craft (see “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog”) with varying results, it’s nice to see the filmmaker, in a sense, go back to his roots.
While the shorts individually described above are the standouts, there are several that work in the context of the film’s entirety. The first two, “Strange To Meet You” (starring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright) and “Twins” (starring Cinque Lee, Joie Lee and Steve Buscemi), would, on their own, be somewhat unsatisfying, yet as an introduction to the movie as a whole, they work effectively as tone and pace setters and acclimate you to the mood of the film. And when they give way to the fabulous third short, the aforementioned “Somewhere in California,” the strengths of the previous pieces are more noticeable after the fact.
Those enamored of the expansive, challenging territory Jim Jarmusch had mined in his more recent films will have to accept the relative limitations of “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Sure, maybe Jarmusch could’ve made this film in his sleep, but when we are given the opportunity to see his considerable skills on display in a forum where everything plays so naturally and effortlessly, only the most stubborn moviegoer would find a reason not to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.