Friday, March 25, 2011

Coffee and Cigarettes Movie Review

This review was first written and published in May 2004 on a website that no longer exists.
Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni enjoy coffee and cigarettes.
Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is a series of short, comic vignettes in which the characters discuss such banalities as Elvis’s long-lost twin brother, the theories of Nikola Tesla, the effects of coffee on your dreams and the absence of any Tom Waits songs on the juke box. All of this is done in various coffee shops while the characters – that’s right – drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.

Jarmusch began this project in 1986 with the production of the first vignette, “Strange to Meet You,” starring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. The next two, “Twins” with Joie and Cinque Lee and Steve Buscemi and “Somewhere in California” with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop followed several years later. Then in 2004 he finally completed another eight short films to round out the themes and release all eleven as a feature film.

On the surface, the shorts are all connected by the common thread of the drugs nicotine and caffeine. But it’s Mr. Jarmusch’s style of dialogue that truly connects them. It’s the banal nature of the conversations and the fact that we could hardly care what anyone on screen is talking about – as in “No Problem” where one man continually asks his friend what is troubling him. It’s the strained effort with which the characters attempt to connect with one another – as in “Renee” when a waiter keeps approaching a woman trying to enjoy her coffee and cigarette. It’s the awkwardness of trying to end a conversation that has had no substance – as Iggy Pop and Mr. Waits (playing themselves) demonstrate.

Like any work comprising several smaller parts there are going to be dull segments, but there are a few that are truly top notch. In “Cousins” Cate Blanchett plays herself as well as her fictional cousin, Shelby. It is fascinating to watch a gifted actress like Blanchett playing opposite herself because it provides an opportunity for a side-by-side comparison of how she handles two very different characters. As Shelby she is hardly recognizable behind a jet black wig, dark eye makeup and dark lipstick. She also dons a slightly stronger Australian accent than the one she actually has. Beyond those surface observations, however, the physical performances are wildly disparate. As Cate, she sits upright and looks classy. Shelby slouches, fidgets, twirls her hair, fails to make eye contact. This may be the one vignette that actually has something of substance to say, even if it is done in extremely subtle ways. Shelby has a clear resentment of Cate’s celebrity, but the issue is never brought to the forefront. It hovers just out of reach and it is a testament to the performances that we know both characters are painfully aware of that fact. You can see in Cate’s face the disappointment in herself for losing touch with family, but also in Shelby for not being a little more mature and realistic about life.

Two other notable segments are “Cousins?” in which Alfred Molina reveals a genealogical secret to a completely uninterested Steve Coogan and “Delirium” with GZA, RZA and Bill Murray all playing themselves. Although it is second to last in the film, it is really the one that brings them all together, recalling elements from most of the previous nine. GZA and RZA discuss some of the lesser known dangers of the chemical additives in cigarettes and opt for herbal tea because it is “crisp and clean, no caffeine” while Murray drinks coffee directly from the pot. Of course they drink to Wu Tang. And I thought it an especially nice touch to have RZA wearing a Ghost Dog hat.

If nothing else, Coffee and Cigarettes serves as a reminder for why I got into cinema a decade ago. It left me remembering a time when I was lit up by directors like Jarmusch and Hal Hartley because they were making movies that were less about plot than they were about great dialogue and quirky performances thrown together on a tiny budget. These are the kinds of movies that are often more capable of revealing the truth of humanity than anything the big studio pictures have to offer.

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