Coffee And Cigarettes is an odd collection of eleven short, unrelated vignettes, each lasting about five to ten minutes. Jim Jarmusch, well-established as one of the kings of American independent cinema, was able to draw on the wellspring of goodwill towards him in the acting community, to cast names from Cate Blanchett to The White Stripes, and Bill Murray to Wu-Tang Clan. Everybody nominally plays themselves, and for no more than a few minutes each. What results is a selection of unusually engaging scenes of varying quality, but which only rarely hits the level expected of a Jarmusch film.
The opening scene, ‘Strange To Meet You’ with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni (a man who always seems like he’s had five cups of coffee), is actually a short film Jarmusch made in 1986 when making Down By Law (1986) with a pre-fame Benigni. Their encounter, like all the others to follow, is built on a strange, awkward tension between the two. Benigni’s performance (and accent) brings back memories of his hilarious verbal tirade of filthy anecdotes in Jarmusch’s 1991 similarly-segmented film, ‘Night On Earth’. Sadly, one recurring problem with Coffee And Cigarettes is that none of the segments ever quite hits the same comic heights as in Night On Earth, when Benigni was using his taxi as a confession booth, telling tales of his adventures with a sheep to a priest in the back seat.
The following two scenes also pre-date the rest of the collection: Steve Buscemi explaining his theories of Elvis’ twin brother, and an amusing scene between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits – each trying to subtly get one up on the other – which actually won the Short Film Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1993. By now the pattern for the rest of the film to follow has been established. The coffee and cigarettes are a constant presence, but are a mere catalyst for the prickly relationships we see on screen before us. Typically each scene does not ‘go’ anywhere or attempt any plot development, but instead just provides us a snapshot of the relationships at hand.
Throughout the film we see a collection of dingy diners, as if Jarmusch is suggesting that they – along with the coffee and cigarettes that go with them – are the heartbeat of America, where relationships and friendships develop. The cups of coffee on chequerboard tables, shot in monochrome, viewed from above, appear like chess pieces, as if the individuals at hand are slowly plotting out their next move on a very small scale.
There are a few other scenes of note. Firstly, who else but Jim Jarmusch would have thought to put Bill Murray on screen with GZA and RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, as they drink caffeine-free herbal tea. And secondly, Cate Blanchett playing both ‘herself’ and her less well-to-do, oft-ignored cousin, inspecting the lack of understanding between the two. Both scenes are amusing, and the latter in particular makes nice remarks on the impact of fame and success, in some ways prescient of Blanchett’s relationship with Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013).
But it is the antepenultimate (and longest) scene, ‘Cousins?’, which is the highlight of the film. Alfred Molina has arranged a coffee with a disinterested Steve Coogan, uncertain why he is there. Molina is warm and friendly, giving Coogan much adulation for his work. Coogan however, does not reciprocate the compliment or friendship. He believes his status as an actor is above that of Molina. But as the scene develops, there is a nice twist which turns the tables. It is the first – and only – scene to actually cause hilarity, with a horrible, cringe-inducing tone. It is a neat comment on human nature and the belief in social status, as seen before in the Cate Blanchett scene.
Sadly, largely due to the high expectations of a Jim Jarmusch film, Coffee And Cigarettes is a little disappointing. Some scenes are forgettable, and only one truly takes life and grasps the attention of the audience. But the majority are engaging, enriching, and lightly amusing, making it an unusual and distracting coffee break of a film.