Coffee and Cigarettes: Just the Thing
Rob Levy
6/13/2004 2:34:56 PM

Did you ever buy a short story collection and think that some of the stories were awesome and others were just, well, sort of Okay? Did you ever buy an album and realize that 3 of the 5 songs on Side 1 are amazing, but the other two need work? Or attend an art exhibition only to discover that it was going to take a while for it all to sink in? If so, then you understand both the exhilaration and disappointment of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes.

Filmed in black and white, and set amongst dingy, dark sets, Coffee & Cigarettes is a series of comedic vignettes built on top of one another. The shorts offer a remarkable look at our strange propensity for the joys in life. As the stories unfold, Jarmusch utilizes his angular narrative style to highlight our addictions and obsessions, while offering insights into the neurosis of fame and the simplest events of everyday life.

The first short, Strange to Meet You, establishes right off the bat that we are in for a weird trip. It involves a coffee and cigarette conversation between two incredibly annoying people: Roberto Benigni and comedian Steven Wright. The duo exchange witty banter and move around, building the hyper and kinetic antics to a humorous crescendo, culminating in Benigni going off to Wright’s dental appointment.

Steve Buscemi steals Twins, a funny romp in a Memphis diner. Buscemi plays a sad schlep that interrupts the ongoing conversation between twins Cinqué and Joie Lee with dryly crisp and confrontational banter about Elvis’ brother--with catastrophic results.

Somewhere in California is weird and brilliant. Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of your mind you have wondered ‘what if’ about something or other. Jarmusch does the same thing, asking us, what if Iggy Pop and Tom Waits (a Jarmusch alum) talked over coffee and cigarettes? The results are indeed surreal. Despite a slow start, the two icons eventually get things rolling as they dance around nicotine addiction, marriage and musicianship before parting ways on uncomfortable terms.

Renee French is sure nice to look at, but that’s about all you can say about Renee, the weakest short in the film. It simply doesn’t take off. Just because you can film nothing happening doesn’t mean you should.

A perfect example of what is wrong with this film is No Problem. It has no real purpose or aim. Jarmusch lets it get away from him. It starts, meanders and quickly dissolves into nothingness. The short has no substance and is in no way shape or form engaging.

The White Stripes are in the house in Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, one of Jarmusch’s moments of brilliance. The vignette features Jack White and Meg White discussing the raw deal that Tesla Coil inventor Nikolai Tesla got. As Jack explains, Tesla believed that the Earth is a conductor of acoustical resonance and used it to make free, pure energy that could be used for power and transportation. Unfortunately Tesla’s work infringed upon the energy industry, causing The Man to put an end to all of that, ruining Tesla in the process. But as Meg points out, we still have the group, Tesla to remind us of all that was. Both Whites are terrific because Jarmusch never has them overdo it. Jack is like a crazed kid with a new science fair project. Meg is like the smarter, older sister who gets her comeuppance being quietly coy and superior. Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil is just plain funny.

Cousins features Cate Blanchett in duels roles as herself and her embittered cousin, Shelly. Blanchett is on target here. She plays Shelly as an awash castaway, resentful of her bourgeois acting cousin. Cate also plays herself as herself, a busy and proper film actress. Despite this short being about two or three minutes too long, you don’t really mind. That’s because Jarmusch is a master of illustrating the uncomfortable. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he gets Blanchett to handle each role, the uncomfortable star and the uncomfortable, somewhat mental relative, seamlessly.

Cousins? Is truly brilliant. Jarmusch sits veteran character actor Alfred Molina and hip Brit comic actor Steve Coogan at a table over tea and cigarettes. They dance around work and the experience of being a Brit working in the States. Molina, a genealogy nut, is bristling with excitement to tell Coogan that they are in fact cousins. Upon learning this, Coogan becomes dismissive and looks for a convenient and expedient way out of their meeting. It is here where Jarmusch turns the tables with hilarious results as Coogan suddenly realizes that Molina (who will be better-known after his turn as Doctor Octopus in next month’s Spider Man 2) has some Hollywood pull. As a comedic team, Coogan and Molina work surprisingly well together. They have a terrific sense of comedic timing and their dry English humor transfers well to the screen.

Of all the vignettes featured in Coffee & Cigarettes, Delerium is by far the funniest. Jarmusch ingeniously teams up Bill Murray with GZA and the RZA of the Wu Tang Clan. Murray, playing himself, is hilarious as he swills coffee directly from the pot with fearless bravado. RZA and GZA curse up a storm, awed by his very presence. The short takes an uproarious twist turn as they stop the hero worship long enough to remind him that too much coffee can in fact cause a state of delirium. After his recent run of more cerebral roles, it is refreshing to see Murray return to comedy. GZA and RZA are perfect foils for his comedy, they play off of each other well, seamless mixing subjects like blunts, beats and herbal medicine along the way. Delirium arrives at just the right time during the film. By placing it near the end Jarmusch adds some levity after a run of more sublime pieces. This is wonderful stuff.

Champagne is the bittersweet finale to the film. It features Taylor Mead and Bill Rice on their work break discussing Mahler, Tesla (in a subtle throwback to a previous piece) and how music stays in your head. Mead pretends their coffee is champagne in order to celebrate life. He wants to savor each moment and second of life. Jarmusch uses this duo to provide a soft, sweet, simplistic and touching end to his compendium of access and pleasure.

Jim Jarmusch has made some terrific films (Ghost Dog, Night On Earth, Dead Man) over the years. With each film he continues to show us the regular and ordinary in a fresh and inventive way. As a writer, he has a knack of finding something extraordinary in the ordinary. As a director, he has a way of showing us what we’ve seen countless times before with new angles, views and frames. Coffee & Cigarettes continues this tradition in fine fashion. Despite being choppy and slow in some places, then film is an enjoyable collection of stories.

Coffee & Cigarettes is recommended for indie film lovers, Jarmusch fans and those that love good stories. It would be judicious, however, to warn friends that love the multiplex that this may not be the thing for them. It is far too out there--and far too different from the drek they may be accustomed to. This kind of filmmaking, about storytelling, character development and situational confrontation is a dying cinematic art.

Watching Coffee & Cigarettes is like watching a good book or savoring good wine. It uses a simple pretext, coffee and cigarettes, to frame wacky, strange and inventive stories about people talking about their lives, likes, passions and desires. This results in an inventive and invigorating movie experience.

Coffee & Cigarettes, MGM Written & Directed by Jim Jarmusch


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