Coffee and Cigarettes
2004Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Bill Murray, Steve Buscemi, Cate Blanchett
es, this is a movie review. But maybe this whole discussion would be better off located over there on the other side of the Stylus Magazine homepage—with all that rock and roll. After all, Coffee and Cigarettes, director Jim Jarmusch's latest experiment in storytelling, feels more like a good rock album than a movie.
And it's better enjoyed that way too. Like most albums, this one has a set of tracks, episodes prefaced by a title and closed with silence. Each stands on its own. There is no story in this film, no introduction of characters in the first 20 minutes, no denouement in the last 15. But the order and the details do matter, not for plot clues, suspense, and catharsis, but for momentum and tone. There are recurring themes and unique instrumentation that bring the pieces together. They make experiencing the whole even more rewarding.
"I'll tell you, Tom, this stuff is more addictive than heroin, and I should know."
In this case the episodes depict a series of conversations. And usually, those conversations are pleasant, lighthearted, and trivial on the surface. Although neither the participants nor the setting remain the same, you can always count on lots of coffee and even more cigarettes. That's about it: talking, smoking, and drinking. No car chases, romance, sex, or even space aliens. But that's just fine. There is method to the underlying triad. The smoking and the drinking give structure to the random and fascinating who and about what of all that talking; like stiff rebar to flowing, gritty cement.
The Coffee and Cigarettes project actually got its start in 1986 with a short film that Jarmusch made starring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. He followed with two more in 1989 and 1993. This full-length feature uses those films as its first three episodes, then fills them out with seven more for a solid 96 minutes that are endlessly varied and strangely satisfying.
Each section is filmed in black and white and many feature celebrities, or quasi-celebrities. Some play themselves, some play completely fictional characters, and most, we sense, are floating somewhere in between. Steve Buscemi just plays a lowly waiter, greasy and over-friendly. Later Bill Murray plays Bill Murray the comedian and actor, who also happens to be hiding out as a lowly waiter, greasy and over-friendly. There are mythic tales and whacked-out Elvis conspiracy theories in one sequence, then Iggy Pop and Tom Waits anxiously tripping over the mundane in the next. At once Cate Blanchett plays both her famous self and a jealous flunky of a cousin. Super cool rockers Jack and Meg White turn out to be science nerds as well. We get it: the ambiguity of fame, the fluidity of character. The meditation is all there, but it is also pleasantly unassuming just the same.
And if you merged these two together, you'd have one perfectly balanced personality.
Here, as in much of Jim Jarmusch's previous work, the point is not the point. In other words, all that deliberate thematic pondering that might come off as obvious and showy in another film, is really just tasty seasoning for the main ingredient here: the people. And that's where the movie glows. The conversations each reflect strange relationships, some strained and hostile, others awkward and pitiful. Most are oddly funny as well. They make you ache and swell with empathy, due more to how the words come out than to what is being said.
Best of all, this is a thinking movie. Not thinking in the Tom Stoppard-ish, philosophy-laden, lots-of-clever-allusions kind of way. But rather, in the satisfyingly accessible way that it welcomes and encourages, but never begs, you to wonder what makes people talk about the things they talk about. It's one of those great indecipherable questions that are easy to ask and impossible to answer. It's the kind of thinking that's one-part spiritual exploration and one-part dorm room bull session. And, of course, it's the kind that goes just perfectly with a cigarette and good cup of coffee.
By: Rob Lott
Published on: 2004-05-28