Coffee and Cigarettes
art of conversation is one that takes a beating in modern cinema. The
prevailing wisdom in Hollywood seems to be why obsess about talking and the
power of words when you can just blow things up? So, it is always a
treat when a film comes along that luxuriates in the pure beauty of
language, of portraying life though imagination rather than special effects.
(How is it, by the way, that this film, which has no sex or violence... just
language..., is rated R, when opening on the same day, the wall-to-wall
violence and death of The Day After Tomorrow is rated PG-13?)
Jarmusch is sort of a master of this form of cinema. In subtle films
like Night On Earth, Down By Law and Mystery Train, he
has taken complicated characters and thrown them into situations where they
must interact with others. He is not a writer and director who
believes in big motions, his films are all full of small moments of life.
Since the early 1980s, Jarmusch has had a pet project that he calls
Coffee and Cigarettes. They are a series of black and white short films with a few
constants. Two (or three) people meet at little funky diners, sit at
the table, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and talk. Mostly the
people talking are Jarmusch's hipster friends, often playing themselves (though,
granted, stylized versions of themselves.) Now, Jarmusch has
grouped together eleven of these short movies which he has made over the
last two decades for release.
Tres cool Jarmusch buddies like
Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Alfred
Molina, Steve Coogan and Jack & Meg White of the White Stripes have
participated in the series. The long gestation period of the film
doesn't necessarily do the movie any favors. Some of Jarmusch's hip
friends are no longer so cutting edge... when was the last time you saw
Steven Wright or Joie Lee? Still, I really wanted to love this film.
I wish I could tell you that Coffee and Cigarettes was a hipster
My Dinner With André. It
sounds like a winning formula.
isn't though. The movie does have some very good moments.
However, way too often, the people on screen are just making small talk.
They really have nothing of interest to say. (Jarmusch is given
writing credit here, but honestly most of these shorts look completely
improvised.) People drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes talking
about drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes gets really tired after a
while. On a guess, I'd say at least half of the shorts here had a variation of
the line "coffee and cigarettes, that doesn't sound like a nutritious
of these stories are so slight that they nearly evaporate. I realize
that was probably what Jarmusch was trying for, capturing the tiny moments
in everyone's life. However, why do we need to see a short film in
which a beautiful woman (Renée French) sits alone, reads gun magazines and
rebuffs a waiter who keeps trying to refill her cup? Or what is the
point in two men (Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé) meeting for
coffee, but then refusing to discuss why they wanted to get together?
Other shorts seem a bit too gimmicky. I'm sure back when he filmed it
in the early eighties, the idea of pairing the hyperactive Roberto Begnini
(Life is Beautiful) with the near-comatose stand-up comedian Steven
Wright seemed like a good idea. The execution is slight though, and
the punch line (Begnini is so accommodating and good natured that he offers
to go to the dentist for Wright) is stupid. A similarly weird grouping
has GZA and RZA of Wu Tang Clan discussing herbal remedies with Bill Murray
while Murray slugs coffee directly from the pot. (This short also has shameless self promotion, RZA must have referred to his
musical alter-ego Bobby Digital four or five times.) Another part that
doesn't work nearly as well as you'd like has Steve Buscemi (Ghost World)
playing an actual character, a Memphis waiter telling Joie and Cinque
Lee (Spike's sister and brother) about his theory of Elvis' evil twin
brother. Buscemi sounds crazy, but honestly the Lees seem off-puttingly
nasty... not just to Buscemi but also to each other.
Happily, three of these segments do work as expected, as clever and
insightful views of the human condition. Musicians Tom Waits and Iggy
Pop are truly entertaining as they meet over coffee and size each other up,
engaging in a subtle game of career one-up-manship. Cate Blanchett
(Veronica Guerin) does a wonderful job of playing both herself as the
semi-successful actress and also her jealous cousin. (The technology
of filming Cate talking to Cate doesn't seem to have improved much since the
days of The Patty Duke Show.) Best of all is the vignette in
which Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) contacts British actor Steve
Coogan (24 Hour Party People) to tell him that he has found in a
genealogy website that they are distant cousins. Coogan makes little
effort to hide his disinterest and disdain for the man, until he finds out
that Molina can perhaps help his career.
there were more little insights like these, Coffee and Cigarettes
might be necessary viewing. As it is,
Coffee and Cigarettes has some inspired parts, however, mostly it's just
PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 28, 2004.