Offbeat Humor and Favorite Addictions; Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes"
by Peter Brunette
[Peter Brunette reviewed this film in September 2003 at
the Toronto International Film Festival.]
While it's not exactly clear who will want to plunk down 10 bucks to see it, Jim Jarmusch's new film "Coffee & Cigarettes" is a delight from beginning to end. Or mostly. Arranged as a series of vignettes featuring well-known personalities, some who have appeared earlier in Jarmusch's work, some who have not, the film is a droll, ironic look at two of our favorite addictions. More than a few of the episodes are downright hilarious, a few more are perfectly amusing even if they don't make you split a gut, and only a couple, happily, are complete misfires. But the off-beat, often absurdist humor displayed here is the sort of in-crowd joshing that Jarmusch is famous for, and one wonders how many people are going to get the joke or even stick around for the punchline. In other words, this film isn't going to play very well in Peoria, and it probably won't even get there.
One of the best episodes, featuring Hollywood-based British actor Alfred Molina ("Frida") and British comedian and actor Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People"), is a masterpiece of comic timing. The actors, playing themselves, vie subtly and hilariously for psychological dominance. One confesses the typical "huge admiration" for the other, but the second only replies, "Well, I'm very aware of you." Another beauty of a sequence, "Somewhere in California," showcases a ravaged duo, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, engaged in a similar sort of passive-aggressive warfare that masquerades as good fellowship. A third focuses hilariously on Bill Murray's weird interactions with two guys from the Wu-Tang Clan.
Another episode features Steve Buscemi playing a racist redneck, while "No Problem" is a masterpiece of miscommunication, with two Claire Denis regulars -- Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankol -- managing to have an entire conversation without saying a single meaningful thing to each other. Cate Blanchett plays opposite herself, as a blonde movie star who's self-reflexively rather embarrassed by her fame, and as the star's resentful and slightly whorish brunette cousin. If we needed further proof of Blanchett's great acting gifts, here it is in miniature form.
Running jokes about nicotine and caffeine, especially their deleterious effects on the human body, nicely structure the film. In an episode starring the overexposed Italian comic actor Roberto Benigni, stand-up comic Steven Wright says he drinks lots of coffee so that he can dream faster. Tom Waits justifies having a cigarette because he has quit smoking. The film is also kept together by means of reappearing camera angles and distances, and a repeated shot of café tables on which the addictive substances are spread out like a Dutch still life, though this time shot from above.
Some of the episodes, inevitably, are less effective than others. In "Rene," a woman named Rene, sporting a bouffant 1960s hairdo, looks through a gun catalogue while an importuning waiter keeps adding coffee to her cup, continually upsetting the balance of sugar, cream, and temperature. In another, a young man demonstrates his Tesla coil for a young woman, only to be bested by her in scientific understanding.
These are only slight blemishes, however. Overall "Coffee & Cigarettes" is basically great stuff, and though apparently the most lightweight material imaginable, the film actually manages to shed some light -- and often some very funny light -- on the inherent weirdness of the social interactions of all our daily lives. It turns out, of course, that we communicate even more when we're not communicating.