Coffee and Cigarettes
I learned to love shitty coffee at a dive called Moe’s over a summer of lifeguarding days and cottage party nights. It was bad enough to be considered good by us, and after a couple months’ worth of it hard and black while seated in the green vinyl booths, cabbies all around, anything else was nectar. I don’t smoke, though.
Jim Jarmusch’s new, and finally completed, collection of vignettes Coffee and Cigarettes is a meticulously casual film about the iconic combination denoted in the title and the possibilities of the American cafÃ© setting. Jitter-jump-started almost two decades ago, the project’s first chapter features Italian actor Roberto Benigni and arid-king comedian Steven Wright. Benigni, renowned for playing characters whose blood is seemingly replaced by pure espresso, is already hopped-up on caffeine when Wright enters. The two play what seems to be an improvised scene centering on unwanted dentistry and awkward communication (brilliantly, Wright completely ignores Benigni’s bizarre, “So, you know my mother?”). It’s like those crude prototypes of Far Side cartoons Gary Larson made when he was a teenager.
The ten remaining segments build upon this distinct form: black and white stock, a checker-board motif, a cafÃ© setting, and marathons of tobacco smoke trails & bottomless cups of mud. Re-references link some of the scenes (repeating of lines in different contexts) but only in a playful and superficial sense. The real genius of the film, apart from the structure Jarmusch provides for his cast, is the craft of acting in all its varied styles. You get the natural charisma of Tom Waits playing against the puppy-faced personality of Iggy Pop; you also enjoy the more technically played scene between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, the film’s highlight. The nuanced meeting between Alex Descas and Isaach de BankolÃ© unfolds like a masterful etude in an acting class. Cate Blanchett plays against herself convincingly in a dual role. All the actors play themselves, or versions of themselves – in many scenes, part of the appeal is the existence of icons as themselves, most notably Bill Murray as himself playing a waiter trying to keep low-profile while serving/chilling with members of the Wu-Tang Clan (who hilariously refer to him at all times by both his first and last names).
Coffee and Cigarettes reminds filmgoers what joy can be unleashed from a simple premise carried-out to its richest conclusions. While the dialogues veer occasionally into meditations on nostalgia, acoustics, idealism, and metaphysics, the film never aspires to capture anything more profound than can be captured during idle chit-chat. The most moving observation made is of the small irritabilities and defensive postures we throw up during conversations: veiled calls for ego-massage, uncomfortable silences, and expressions of personal offense are nailed vividly. In this way, Coffee and Cigarettes avoids the possibly harmful side-effects of other conversation-based films like Waking Life and My Dinner with Andre, films that can be faulted for excessive mental-masturbation. But hey, masturbation of any kind is rewarding. Well, maybe not on animals for aiding with artificial insemination…