Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Roberto Benigni (Roberto), Steven Wright (Steven), Joie Lee (Good Twin), Cinqué Lee (Evil Twin), Steve Buscemi (Waiter), Iggy Pop (Iggy), Tom Waits (Tom), Joseph Rigano (Joe), Vinny Vella (Vinny), Vinny Vella Jr. (Vinny Jr.), Renee French (Renée), E.J. Rodriguez (Waiter), Alex Descas (Alex), Isaach De Bankolé (Isaach), Cate Blanchett (Cate / Shelly), Jack White (Jack), Meg White (Meg), Alfred Molina (Alfred), Steve Coogan (Steve), The GZA (GZA), RZA (RZA), Bill Murray (Bill Murray), William Rice (Bill), Taylor Mead (Taylor).

Coffee and Cigarettes is a series of 11 short films shot over nearly 20 years by Jim Jarmusch – all revolving around two or three characters talking over – you guessed it – coffee and cigarettes. Some of the segments are funny, some are introspective – some are both. Some are meaningless or slight, and others address celebrity and other issues. None of them are really misfires – although some certainly work better than others – but all run less than 10 minutes each, so if you don’t like what’s onscreen, you don’t have to wait very long.

In order, the films are about: the manic Roberto Benigni meeting the ever calm Steve Wright; Cinque and Joie Lee in Memphis talking with their waiter – Steve Buscemi with a ridiculous accent – about how Elvis stole African American music; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits trying to passive aggressively one up each other; Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella discussing their health – and the actions of Vinny Jr.; Renee French and her exacting routine of how she likes her coffee, ruined by an overly attentive waiter; Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankole talking around an incident in their shared past; Cate Blanchatt meeting up with her less well to do cousin; Jack White showing Meg White his Tesla coil; Alfred Molina telling Steve Coogan that his genealogical research has revealed their cousins, and thinking it would make an excellent movie; GZA and RZA being baffled that the coffee shop they’re in is being run by an ever strange Bill Murray; and William Rice and Taylor Mead talking about everything and nothing. All 11 films are shot in black and white, and take place in a coffee shop – some rundown, some slightly more upscale, where they characters are basically alone – allowed to speak freely, enjoy some coffee and a cigarette. The film lacks any real ambition – it basically just wants to be precisely what it seems like – a series of coffee and cigarette breaks.

Of course, some of the segments work better than others. My favorite is probably Iggy Pop and Tom Waits – mainly for the way Waits takes subtle jabs at Iggy Pop the whole time through – from his explanation as to why he’s late (they was a traffic pileup, and he had to perform roadside surgery) to goading him into having a cigarette, to his perfect final line. Iggy Pop tries to keep up, but Waits is just that much better of a bullshit artist than he is. Close is Blanchatt’s sequence, where she plays both herself, trying very hard to nice to her cousin, and her cousin who resents her cousin – and not wholly without reason to. It’s a little tour-de-force from Blanchatt. And Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan’s segment is probably the out and out funniest – as Molina seems so innocently happy to be meeting with Coogan, and Coogan is such an asshole at first, that we watch as Molina gradually has his hopes dashed – only to end up with the upper hand. Coogan is so good at playing himself as an asshole – but perhaps never more so than here.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ones that don’t work as well as Jarmusch probably intended. Renee French’s sequence is perhaps too slight, too subtle to even register – it’s the one I always forget about. The final sequence, with Bill Rice and Taylor Mead has the feeling like it’s building to something that never quite arrives. Jack and Meg White aren’t particularly good actors – although it is amusing to wonder why exactly Jack White wants a Telsa coil in the first place. The other segments fall somewhere in between.

Yet even the least successful sequences offer a few pleasures, or something to think about. Jarmusch has made this type of before of course – Night on Earth was shot as a feature, but had the same overreaching feel. Coffee and Cigarettes lacks the ambition of Night on Earth, which really did try to find the connecting tissue between its segments, but it’s more successful as a film because the sequences all feel the right length – they don’t overstay their welcome.

The film doesn’t add up to some grand design or theme. Jarmusch isn’t really interested in that. Instead, he’s made a series of 11 shorts that all offer something. You can criticize the film for being meaningless if you want – but when a film offers this many pleasures, does it really matter if it all adds up to nothing?

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