Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) ***
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Photography, Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Müller, Tom DiCillo. Editing, Jay Rabinowitz, Melody London, Terry Katz, Jim Jarmusch. Production design, Mark Friedberg, Tom Jarmusch, Dan Bishop. Producers, Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot. Cast: Roberto Benigni (Roberto), Steven Wright (Steven), Joie Lee (Good Twin), Cinqué Lee (Evil Twin/Kitchen Guy), Steve Buscemi (Waiter), Iggy Pop (Iggy), Tom Waits (Tom), Joe Rigano (Joe), Vinny Vella (Vinny), Vinny Vella Jr. (Vinny Jr.), Renée French (Renée), E. J. Rodriguez (Waiter), Alex Descas (Alex), Isaach de Bankolé (Isaach), Cate Blanchett (Cate/Shelly), Mike Hogan (Waiter), Jack White (Jack), Meg White (Meg), Alfred Molina (Alfred), Steve Coogan (Steve), Katy Hansz (Katy), GZA (GZA), RZA (RZA), Bill Murray (Bill Murray), Bill Rice (Bill) and Taylor Mead (Taylor). A United Artists release. 96 minutes. R
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is far from the madding crowd. He does not make movies for teens, movies about sex, spectaculars, special effects movies, or anything else that can be easily pigeon-holed or classified. Instead, Jarmusch is a genuine “auteur” and a maverick who makes good, intimate, oddball works for which he has a dedicated following but no mass appeal.
WARNING. My three stars for “Coffee and Cigarettes” are for Jarmuschites. Otherwise, many audiences will disagree with my rating.
Jarmusch (born in 1953) is, in many ways a minimalist, here and elsewhere. He has made about eight eight features, some in color, some in black-and-white. They are episodic. The common acceptance of the word “plot” does not apply in his case.
“Coffee and Cigarettes” is a series of 11 very short items or vignettes, in which two or more people are sitting down, caffeining and nicotinizing themselves… and sort of chatting. It all started in 1986 with a 6 minute item on Saturday Night Live in which Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright chatted in a coffee place. That was right after Benigni, known in Italy, was discovered in the USA in Jarmusch’s “Down By Law.”
There followed several “C &C” episodes, one of which was nominated at the Cannes Festival, and another did get the Golden Palm in its category.
A Benigni-Wright meeting of strangers opens the current movie, in which Benigni offers to take the other guy’s dentist appointment --and does. A wonderful bit of absurdism.
Weirdos of all kinds follow this with surreal presences and small-talk-- mostly rambling and desultory--as the camera always intercuts to overhead shots of coffee cups. Among other conversation bits we often get anti-smoking messages, e.g. “those things will kill ya.” And most of the bits take place in otherwise deserted cafes, save one, a scene in a posh hotel lobby
where Cate Blanchett plays the roles of two cousins—in the the only segment where espresso is asked for, as opposed to the notoriously flat standard U.S. coffee. And, in one episode, tea replaces coffee.
I cannot use my limited space on detailing each segment. Certain bits connect, even indirectly, with others. Twice we get paeans of Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) the Serbian genius who, especially in America, was the inventor of major electrical theories and applications. One of them, the Tesla Coil, even gets a weird demonstration in the movie.
(I was enchanted by this Tesla-ism as, many years ago, I took a film-producer friend to the O’Hare Airport for a meeting with another friend, a Yugoslav critic then trying to get a movie going about Tesla. Nothing came of it – but while writing this review I found out that I had missed a documentary on Tesla, on PBS in April 2004.)
Fascinating “in-bits” abound in the picture. Mostly esoteric ones. In one vignette, for no apparent reason, there’s a picture of Lee Marvin on the wall. But then, total movie-devotees may remember “The Big Heat,” a Hollywood film by the great German Fritz Lang in which mobster Marvin throws a pitcher of boiling coffee on the face of his moll Gloria Grahame and disfigures her!
Such are the delights of film-going. Other aspects, such as identifying thespians from past Jarmusch items, and/or figuring out what, if any, connections exist here, will add interest for hard-core cinephiles.
At random, one of the characters is Isaach De Bankole, that excellent, African-born French actor, who speaks French here. He was one of the five cab-drivers in five cities, in that highly recommended Jarmusch feature “Night on Earth.”
The longest segment, coming near the film’s end, is the best. Two British actors, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan steal the whole show from other players. They actually play actors who know each other, converse, pat one another on the back (so to speak) and somewhat indulge on one-upmanship… It is impossible to relate the subtleties of the situation in this splendidly clever segment. But I can guarantee that the quality, writing, originality, performances, subtleties and other respects of this piece are worth four stars and the price of the movie.
Note: I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why the rating is R!