Writer/director Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise"), an American independent original, gathers together friends and former collaborators in an omnibus of eleven short films to explore the universality of "Coffee and Cigarettes."
Things kick off with "Strange to Meet You," a short made in 1986 at the request of Saturday Night Live starring the brilliantly paired hyperactive Roberto Benigni (Jarmusch's "Down by Law") and the spiritually laid back Steven Wright ("So I Married an Axe Murderer") as strangers who trade chairs and a dentist appointment. This mildly amusing vignette (Benigni hadn't formed the manic persona he has become known by since) is followed by one of the film's even lesser segments, "Twins," shot while Jarmusch was making "Mystery Train" in Memphis. Spike siblings Joie ("She's Gotta Have It") and Cinqué Lee ("Mystery Train") trade barbs while a weird waiter (Steve Buscemi, in one of the film's only fully fictionalized roles) defends Elvis Presley with a bizarre story involving an evil twin.
In 1992, "Somewhere in California" features the first meeting of Iggy Pop and Tom Waits in what becomes a game of passive aggression that will be repeated in subsequent episodes. An eager to please, almost geeky Iggy is toyed with by Waits, who claims to have performed childbirth and an emergency tracheotomy in his second career as a doctor on the way to their meeting. Another odd waiter is featured in "Renee" in the person of musician E.J. Rodriguez, who displeases Renee French by giving a heater to her perfectly blended cup o' joe. Renee is a cool customer, who passively leafs through aggressively masculine literature like gun manuals and hunting knife catalogs while "Crimson and Clover" plays out in the background. "No Problem" stars Alex Descas ("Lumumba") and Isaach De Bankolé (Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog") in a simple concept stretched longer than a short will bear.
The final half dozen films were all shot in 2003 and, with the exception of the first, are where "Coffee and Cigarettes" becomes energized. Cate Blanchett plays a less confident version of herself meeting up with cousin Shelby (also Blanchett) in a hotel lobby during a press junket. Shelby guilt trips Cate, then is unceremoniously put back in her place when her famous relative leaves the table. Blanchett has fun riffing on two very different, if simply drawn, characters. The White Stripes' Jack takes on the nerd mantle in "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil" while his sister Meg plays the droll hipster in perhaps the most uncharacteristic episode (Tesla's perception of the earth as a conductor of acoustic resonance does catch a second wave in the final short). "Cousins?" is hands down the best segment of the film. A puppy doggish Alfred Molina (Jarmusch's "Dead Man") acts like an awed fan at an arranged meeting with the stuck up Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People") who cuts down his companion until he discovers a connection to Spike Jonze. This is followed by a hilarious meeting between Wu Tang Clan's RZA (Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog") and GZA with a barely in cognito Bill Murray, who gulps coffee straight from the carafe while looking like a cross between a lunch counterman and Popeye. RZA riffs on Waits as a practitioner of 'alternative medicine' while he and G ingeniously make Murray's very name a repeated punch line. "Champagne" is an oddly melancholy yet funny denouement featuring Bill Rice and the fabulously eccentric Taylor Mead.
Several different cinematographers (Tom DiCillo, Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras and Robby Müller) maintain visual fluidity with black and white photography and consistent overhead shots of each segment's table. Jarmusch weaves strange little themes, like musicians who doctor on the side and checkerboard patterned cafe tables, without really delving into the properties of coffee or cigarettes - in fact, Molina and Coogan drink tea. In about half the episodes, there are more cups on the table than customers, another oddity that appears to have no meaning.
Taken as a whole, "Coffee and Cigarettes" plays like a half-baked indulgence, a hip in-joke that the audience is never made privy to, but those who remain patient through the film's several dry spells will be richly rewarded in the end stretch.
Helmer Jim Jarmusch has marched to his own tune right from his Cannes winning feature, “Stranger Than Paradise,” way back in 1983. He continues to follow his own vision and his latest is a compilation of 11 short vignettes that all have the same theme: “Coffee and Cigarettes.”
The first of this series of kaffee klatch tales, “Strange to Meet You,” was actually made nearly 20 years ago for “Saturday Night Live.” Roberto (Roberto Benigni) and Steven (Steven Wright) meet at a little coffee shop and, as they smoke cigarettes and slug down espresso, talk about not much at all.
The second installment, “Twins,” has a coffee-gulping, butt-smoking brother and sister (Cinque Lee and Joie Lee) lamenting their decision to move to Memphis. They are joined by an inquisitive waiter (Steve Buscemi) who notices that they are twins and proceeds to tell them the story about Elvis’s evil twin brother who was responsible for the King’s downfall.
Part three, “Somewhere in California,” joins rock legend Iggy Pop and gravel-voiced Tom Waits as they discuss music and medicine. Waits regales his friend with his stories about the emergency roadside surgery he performed while on the way to their meeting. They then discuss the beauty of quitting smoking as the pair suck greedily on the coffin nails they purloin from an abandoned pack of the table.
“Those Things’ll Kill Ya” pairs Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella meeting and arguing. Joe castigates Vinny for his continuing smoking habit while Vinny disses his friend for his caffeine dependency. Meanwhile, Vinny’s son, the mute Vinny Jr., hits his old man up for some money and comes back with a bag of Japanese peas. Joe tries one, spits it out and claims he’s poisoned. Vinny tells him that they are a delicacy.
The fifth entry has “Renee” (Renee French) sitting alone with her cup of coffee, cigarettes and handgun magazines. She is upset with the Waiter (E.J. Rodriguez) who, unsolicited, refills her cup and ruins what was a cuppa of perfect color and temperature.
Number six, “No Problem,” is the meeting between Isaach (Isaach de Bankole) and Alex (Alex Descas, called for by Alex. Isaach is worried that his friend is in trouble despite the repeated assurances that there is no problem at all.
Episode seven, “Cousins,” has Cate Blanchett doing double duty as herself and her cousin, Shelly. Things get tense as Shelly can barely hide her envy for her actress cousin’s success. Things come to a head when Shelly realizes that Cate’s gift of expensive makeup is nothing more than “swag” given to the star.
Eight, “Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil,” stars Jack and Meg White of the band The White Stripes and their discourse revolves around Jack’s prize possession – a Tesla machine (look it up on the web). Nikola Testa, Jack explains before demonstrating his toy, changed the world with his invention and perceived “the Earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance.”
Number nine, “Cousins?” joins actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan as they get together in LA for tea. They have only a passing acquaintance but Alfred is all excited with the discovery that, way back in time, they are related. Steve resists Alfred’s attempt at filial familiarity – until Alfred gets a phone call. Then the tables turn.
Part ten, “Delirium,” has former Wu-Tang Clan members GZA and RZA discussing the merits of alternative medicine and how their lives were made better by eliminating caffeine. They are joined by Bill Murray, dressed as a waiter, who offers them some java. They refuse but he joins in on the discussion, drinking coffee from the pot.
Lastly, in number eleven, “Champagne,” Taylor (Taylor Meade) tells Bill (Bill Rice) how he feels like Mahler’s “I’ve Lost Track of the World,” then they talk about Tesla’s machine, earthly acoustical resonance and compare coffee and champagne.
These eleven little works, as one might expect, are an uneven collection with the central theme of coffee and smokes. These aren’t earth-shattering subjects and the strength or weakness of each episode depends on the inventiveness of the dialogue and the charm of the players. Shot on grainy black and white film stock, “Coffee and Cigarettes” definitely has the look of a Jim Jarmusch effort, utilizing the minimalist style and deadpan dialogue of “Stranger Than Paradise.”
I have a couple of favorites in the “C&C” collection, topping off with “Cousins?” Alfred Molina’s almost childlike enthusiasm for his lineage discovery is beautifully opposed by Steve Coogan’s droll, cynical and witty performance. It is quite the pleasure to watch such talented actors put forth so much complexity into such a short amount of screen time.
Bill Murray, RZA and GZA provide an unexpected and funny mix of characters. Why Bill Murray would be dressed as a waiter and appear to be in hiding is never explained and, when he starts to slug straight out of the pot, you forget to even ask the question. The music men strive to teach Murray about good health and how coffee can cause delirium. RZA and GZA talk nonstop, dispensing their wisdom to the always amusing Bill Murray.
As for the rest of the assembly, if you don’t like one, wait a few minutes. Another will be right along. Each entry is but a few minutes long and there are enough good ones that the 96 minute runtime seemed to fly by. Besides the caffeine and nicotine themes in every episode there are also other concepts and jokes that appear time and again. Admonishments about coffee and cigarettes not being a healthy lunch is shrugged off be every smoker. Of course, Tesla’s machine is discussed over and again, as is medicine and music.
Techs are simple and no fewer than four lensers participated in the making of “C&C” – Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Muller and Tom DiCillo provide quite different looks to their individual sequences. Production designer Mark Friedberg gives each episode its own unique setting and décor.
“Coffee and Cigarettes” will attract fan’s of Jim Jarmusch’s quirky film style and offbeat humor. Some episodes are better than others and the couple I mentioned are near worth the price of admission. I give it a B-.
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