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Coffee and Cigarettes (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes


Starring Roberto Begnini, Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Joie Lee, Cinque Lee, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renée French, E.J. Rodriquez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Mike Hogan, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Katy Hansz, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice and Taylor Mead.

Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch.

Distributed by MGM Communications.  96 minutes.  Rated R.

The 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?)

Jim Jarmusch is sort of a master of this form of cinema.  In subtle films like Night On EarthDown 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.

It sounds like a winning formula.  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 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 lunch.”

Some 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.

If 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 blowing smoke.  (5/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: May 28, 2004.

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