Coffee and Cigarettes
Director: Jim Jarmusch. Cast: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renée French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead. Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch.


I was sincerely surprised by how much I did not groove to this movie. Lots of appetizing personalities stopping by, and even better than that, three cinematographers who consistently work at the very peak of their profession: Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Robby Müller (Dancer in the Dark). Muller was also the d.p. on the only other Jarmusch pictures I've seen, the transcendent Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and the problematic neo-Western Dead Man. Even though I couldn't quite cotton to Dead Man, it struck me as an ambitious and interestingly eccentric project that was worth reckoning with.

Coffee and Cigarettes operates from a different direction entirely. Slack and repetitive, the whole movie is so empty it's harmless, but the sheer degree of emptiness is almost staggering. Assembled as a series of short vignettes in which offbeat celebrities and virtual unknowns, mostly playing themselves, sit around chattering over some smokes and some joe, the movie isn't just directionless, it's designed to lack direction. It isn't just choked and unrewarding, it's deliberately devoted to small-talk conversations between people who have little or nothing to say to each other. It's not just superficial, it's embarrassingly lopsided between the evocative potentials of its starry cast and crew members and the sheer banality of what Jarmusch has actually invited them to participate in. Not all movies have to be up to something; the pleasure that we might fairly expect from a project like Coffee and Cigarettes should spring from its knowing smallness, its attenuated focus on a few stray moments and jazzy improvisations, its unexpected combos of incongruous semi-star personas. But even this kind of minor-key gratification is in remarkably short supply. Most of the vignettes concern people who think they want to meet each other, only to discover that they wish the hadn't (or else, with a small standard of deviation, uneasy pas-de-deux between one person who's eager and another who's on edge). This is the kind of thing Steven Wright or Bill Murray could manage in their sleep, while Joie and Cinqué Lee and Jack and Meg White have to struggle just to hold together a few minutes of cameo time as themselves. In either case, the movie doesn't seem quite worth the time of the participants, exceedingly little time though it is.

More promising meetings between the charismatic Frenchmen Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé and between the English actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan are sunk by over-extension. Cate Blanchett, who has survived worse movies than this without a scratch on her, enjoys most of what fun there is to be had here, playing an especially luminous version of herself as well as a dark-haired, brow-furrowing cousin who's disgusted by her famous relative's advantages. Even here, though, the film's recurrent focus on celebrity becomes unseemly. Just because none of these actors are the type who win People's Choice Awards does not mean that their off-the-cuff patter are any more endearing or any less hollow. Teaming Iggy Pop and Tom Waits for a session of tacit competition masked as admiration sounds like a peach of an idea, until you realize that Iggy especially looks a little skittish on camera, and the sketch catches so little fire that you start to feel like it's nothing but an excuse for Jarmusch to invite some friends over and indulge in some failed riffs. Even worse, we may just be watching Jarmusch flout the list of people willing to answer the call of his own vanity project, an implication from which Coffee and Cigarettes never quite absolves itself.

There are a few nice moments in some of the above mini-portraits. The simple sight of Renée French repeatedly waving off an over-eager waiter is somehow able to support a whole skit, and the way the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA pronounce the name "Bill Murray" gets laughs all by itself. The last bit, with two aging plant workers stretching out a coffee break, is maybe the best of the group, but it's not coincidental that this charming, quietly affecting episode departs in almost every way from the crass, routine templates of the other vignettes.

Through all of this is some moodily photographed smoke and a lot of boho posturing, but it's hardly enough to cohere the film. Is there a more clichéd, more faux-artistic motif in the world than the self-conscious cool of coffee-shop hangers-on? I was just never sure what fun was to be had watching other people smoke, or talk about how good coffee tastes, and if Deming, Kuras, or Müller were pressed into one more overhead shot of a coffee-shop table strewn with cups and ashtrays, I was worried what I might do. The friend I saw this with was also my companion at the Sprecher sisters' 13 Conversations About One Thing a few years ago, which we didn't think much of either. Had we known that Jim Jarmusch had been spending his time composing 11 Conversations About Two Things, we might well have stayed away. Let's just hope that another anthology film called Beer and Pretzels isn't next on his agenda. C–


Awards:
Cannes Film Festival (1993): Palme d'or (Best Short Film; for Section III, with Pop and Waits)

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