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COFFEE AND CIGARETTES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinque Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach de Bankole, Cate Blanchett, Meg White, Jack White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead
Director:  Jim Jarmusch
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  September 21, 2004

“Maybe you should quit.”

“I ain’t no f—king quitter.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

Film ***

The late Gene Siskel used to have a litmus test for movies:  would a film about the actors getting together and having lunch be more interesting than the picture they actually made?

In the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, those two flicks are one and the same.  It’s like a short story collection of 11 vignettes where the actors all more or less play themselves and share small talk over smokes and joe.  It was a total of 17 years in the making, with some pieces released as short films over the years.  Brought all together, it feels like a small indie movie of epic proportions.  The length of time it took Jarmusch to make the movie gave it an amusing modern irony; as Roger Ebert has pointed out, people can no longer smoke in coffee shops! 

Each segment is like eavesdropping on a quiet conversation, and like life, sometimes people talk about everything over coffee, sometimes they talk about nothing.  Certain bits are more intriguing than others, but it all seems like a wonderfully spirited cross section of life, captured in beautiful black and white, and laid bare for all to drink in and mull over.

Some segments are strangely amusing, like the opening where an eager-to-please Roberto Benigni agrees to go to the dentist in place of  Steven Wright.  Some are inexplicably funny, like the segment with Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes discussing Jack’s new Tesla coil…it has no jokes, but the way the two play the scene had me howling with their timing and reactions.  Some say a lot, like the one between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, others seem to say nothing at all, like the one where the achingly lovely Renee French tries to ward off an awkward and obviously smitten E.J. Rodriguez.

I want to say more about the Molina/Coogan segment, though, because it was my favorite.  The two actors meet because Alfred has discovered they are distant cousins.  He is enthralled by the idea of a new member of his family; the cool Coogan a little less so.  The scene is simple in scope yet complex in emotion; Molina’s performance is quietly heartbreaking.  And the way the scene concludes was a brilliant but honest slice of human nature laid bare.

I also loved the part where Cate Blanchett, the acclaimed actress, sits down with her cousin (also played by Cate Blanchett), for a small conversation where the unspoken words really seem to tell the story.  It’s a tour-de-force dual performance by Ms. Blanchett that’s both funny and touching.

Iggy Pop and Tom Waits share a moment where the two agree it’s okay to have a cigarette since both had successfully quit smoking.  Steve Buscemi plays a waiter to Joie and Cinque Lee, who sit disgruntled in Memphis while listening to his wild theory about how Elvis was replaced by his supposed dead twin, Jessie Garon.  And GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan have an amusing conversation with a semi-incognito Bill Murray about alternative medicine.

The whole film plays out like experiments in pairing…one might ask what would happen if Iggy Pop and Tom Waits sat down for coffee, or what the Wu-Tang and Bill Murray might say to one another, or what the White Stripes talk about in their spare time.  The genius of Jim Jarmusch is that the scenery is unimportant, and sometimes the dialogue seems banal, but through it all, he examines human nature with a microscope.  Sometimes it’s the things that can’t be seen with the naked eye that make up the composition of a person.

No segment is too long, so if you find one not to your interest, you are only minutes away from a different one.  Like any collection of short stories, some are better than others, but the best ones usually make the whole book worth reading.

Video ***1/2

Jarmusch is an artist who is consummately comfortable with black and white, and his DP Frederick Elmes, while not having to move his cameras around too much, always seem to capture everyday images in beautifully contrasting ways.  There is only minimal grain here and there…normal for higher contrast stocks…and the white seem pure and clean and the blacks deep and strong.  Nicely done.

Audio **

The film offers a 5.1 soundtrack, but it doesn’t require it; the movie is really only dialogue with a couple of light traces of music in the background.  Everything sounds clean and clear and well balanced, but by nature, this won’t test your sound system out much.

Features **

Wouldn’t some cast commentary be great for a film like this?  Sadly, there is none, but the disc does include a funny outtake from Bill Murray, an original trailer, an interview with actor Taylor Mead, and a strange bit called “Tabletops”, which is nothing but…well, tabletop shots set to music.

Summary:

Coffee and Cigarettes is a parade of humanity in all its strange, funny, sad, and wonderful forms.  These 11 short segments crafted by Jim Jarmusch and a strikingly wonderful and unusual cast make for a film lover’s delicacy.

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