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Coffee and Cigarettes Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 September 2004

Coffee And Cigarettes

United Artists
MPAA rating: R
starring: Roberto Benigni, Stephen Wright, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Taylor Mead
director: Jim Jarmusch
film release year: 2003
DVD release year: 2004
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture rating: Three Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Back in 1986, Jim Jarmusch shot a brief, black and white film with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni (before Benigni’s fame in the U.S.); two guys meet for coffee and cigarettes in a small coffee shop. They’re a little nervous about each other, but Benigni grows so excited over the encounter that he goes to the dentist for Wright.

A few years later, he shot another encounter in a diner between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, who are playing themselves, or rather characters with their names. This encounter too is edgy and funny, as the two unexpectedly find themselves engaging in oblique oneupsmanship. This was shown as a short and won a few awards.

These are presumably what led Jarmusch to eventually stitch together eleven encounters over coffee and cigarettes; each dramatizes encounters that can be clumsy, embarrassing, irritating or otherwise hamstrung by the pair (usually) being not quite able to communicate. There are almost no connections between the segments, other than the variety of cafes, restaurants and coffee shops we see, and the presence of a checkerboard pattern in most. There are so many straight-down shots at the tabletops that just those scenes are isolated in a separate “Tabletops” short. Nikolai Tesla is mentioned in a couple of the segments, as is the idea of freezing coffee to make cafsicles. Many of the characters are entertainers, usually actors or musicians, sometimes (as with Tom Waits), both. None of the segments are very serious, many are quite funny, and they are essentially as disposable as coffee and cigarettes.

Some of the segments either don’t work, or are unclear about what they’re trying to do. These include “Those Things’ll Kill Ya,” with two grumpy New Yorkers arguing over the health hazards of cigarettes, or “Renée,” with an irritable young woman browsing through a weapons magazine finding the attentive waiter too annoying, or “No Problem,” which doesn’t seem to have a point at all.

Others are slyly amusing; “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil” is exactly that: a young man (Jack White) trying to impress a woman with his Tesla coil (mounted on a little red wagon), but taken aback when she knows more about physics than he does. “Champagne,” the last segment, is the most eerie, as one of the two old men (Taylor Mead) seems to die as we watch.

But other segments are dryly insightful, even hilarious at times. In “Cousins,” Cate Blanchett plays herself and her jealous cousin, meeting after a long absence. It’s clear that Cate the movie star considers herself a bit superior to her dark-haired cousin, but is embarrassed by this attitude; the cousin is envious of Cate’s success, but is perfectly willing to take a bag of goodies—even though she’s careful to point out to her movie star cousin that she knows the items were freebies, given to Blanchett just because she’s famous. Blanchett is amazing in this segment; it’s all too easy not to realize she’s playing both roles, so clear does she make the two women’s personalities. It’s an impressive tour de force.

So, in its own way, is “Cousins?” Alfred Molina, as himself, meets Steve Coogan, likewise, in an upscale Los Angeles tea shop (being Brits, they happily drink tea rather than the coffee featured in all the other segments). Molina is presented as a cheerful, ingratiating guy, perhaps a bit of a dingbat, but likeable all the same. Coogan is egotistical and clearly feels that he’s slumming a trifle by agreeing to meet Molina for the first time. But what Molina has to say makes him so uncomfortable he clearly wants to break off all contact—until he realizes Molina is more connected than he is.

In “Delirium,” GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan get together in a coffee shop to chat about business when they’re surprised to discover their waiter is Bill Murray. Himself. The two musicians drink herbal tea, but Murray drinks coffee out of the pot. It’s a wacky little segment that really goes nowhere, but Murray is on the spot, funny and a bit creepy.

“Coffee and Cigarettes” is variable, but even the lesser segments are brief and well-staged; it’s all in black and white, and the crew varies from segment to segment. Music is mostly source music, rock and other types either played as Muzak in the various establishments, or blasting out of a jukebox. Only in “Champagne” does a bit of music (by Mahler) creep into the scene, the music the dying man is hearing in his mind.

All technical aspects are professional; the black and white photography is crisp and clean, sometimes moody, sometimes expansive. The sound is good for the setting, but this isn’t one to demonstrate your 5.1 system’s capabilities.

If you’ve liked Jim Jarmusch’s movies in the past, you know he’s uneven, but consistently imaginative and intelligent. Like most of his films, this is a bit slow, but the pace picks up with each new segment. For those who like Jarmusch, this is highly recommended; for those who don’t (or haven’t a clue who his is), this is also recommended, but with reservations.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
aspect ratio:
Widescreen 1.78:1 16X9 Enhanced
special features: Trailer, “Tabletops” short, interview with Taylor Mead, Bill Murray outtake, Trailers for other films, Songs isolated on a track
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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