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Up in Smoke

Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes Briefly Tickles the Senses Before Dissipating into the Ether

...and Iggy Pop and Tom Waits slurp and puff in Coffee and Cigarettes.

Potheads: (from left) the GZA, the RZA, and Bill Murray...

...Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni...

Coffee and Cigarettes

Director:Jim Jarmusch
Cast:Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Renée French, E.J. Rodriguez, Jack White, Meg White, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, RZA, GZA, Bill Murray
Screen Writer:Jim Jarmusch
Release Date:2004

Opens June 11 at the Rotunda Cinematheque

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/9/2004

Sit a couple of cult personalities at a table, give them enough caffeine and nicotine to kill some hippopotami, and catch whatever transpires in luxurious black and white. Jim Jarmusch's shorts project of just that idea has wafted through the brain as the perfect vehicle for his peculiar cinematic gifts since it was first teased. His 1986 Saturday Night Live "Coffee and Cigarettes" short paired an overcranked Roberto Benigni with a blithely nonchalant Steven Wright, and was a quick but tasty inhale. Its humdrum absurdity--they talk about nothing, and it ends with Benigni eagerly heading to the dentist in Wright's stead--rolled around the mouth with fleeting warmth and ended before it could stain the fingers.

Surely Jarmusch, a chiaroscuro maestro of the mundane, could mine more from where this came. And when he popped up in Wayne Wang's chatty, improvisational Blue in the Face and luxuriated over one final smoke before quitting--thoughtfully canonizing coffee and cigarettes with "That's like the breakfast of champions"--the ruminative cool of a Jarmuschian java-and-smokes reverie promised to start more people huffing and jittering than mighty Joe Camel and Starbucks combined.

Coffee and Cigarettes, Jarmusch's ninth feature and first since 1999's Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, is all that and much less. Its 11 vignettes--deadpan linked by the title items, with thematic parallels possibly billowing throughout--are wildly inconsistent. Some never rise above the situational setup--Wright and Benigni, the Renée French and E.J. Rodriguez customer-waiter chitchat tango, Jack White telling Meg White about his Tesla coil. Others sound more rewarding on paper than they are on celluloid--Tom Waits and Iggy Pop's verbal parry around their reputations, twins Joie and Cinqué Lee bickering in the company of Steve Buscemi's Memphis waiter, who shares a convoluted dead-Elvis theory. And a precious few--Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan's slow-burn celebrity egos death match, the dual-role Cate Blanchett skewering her posh actress self via her caustic commoner cousin, and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA offering herbal remedies to a wiggy Bill Murray, who draws belts of black directly from the pot--elevate everything to such an altitude that you swear everybody was smoking something stronger than tobacco, and you wonder how they turned the high into such a brazen, breezy entertainment.

This uneven journey--its 96 minutes crawl at that Jarmuschian pace that makes the glacial look coked to the gills--wouldn't feel so fickle if Coffee and Cigarettes didn't so squarely hit all of Jarmusch's strengths. He wrings captivating wholes greater than the sum of their episodic parts (Mystery Train, Night on Earth), orchestrates hypnotic long-take scenes (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law), and coaxes water-walking subtlety out of bona fide movie stars (Dead Man, his high-water mark). His movies invite expectations of more from less, and his sincere affection for classic midcentury Americana--visually, Jarmusch animates Edward Hopper's stark romanticism--is perfectly suited for these two pleasures/addictions. Coffee and cigarettes are those great American work breaks, those two activities in which anybody from the office suit to the janitor partakes. And these days, chances are both meet outside the building when sparking up.

So when the overlapping layers to Coffee surface, wild-hair interpretations do as well. Each vignette examines touchy relationships, between family (Cinqué and Joie Lee, Blanchett and her "cousin," the estranged relatives played by Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé, Vinny Vella and his son, the distant-cousins theory Molina poses to Coogan), pseudo-peers (Pop and Waits; Wright and Benigni; Molina and Coogan; Murray, RZA, and GZA), rungs on celebrity's ladder (Molina and Coogan, Blanchett, Waits and Pop), and screwball combos of all three (Jack and Meg White). Snatches of background songs and dialogue overlap, and you wonder if the presence of a waitperson in almost every short is merely an artifact of the coffee shop/café settings or yet another inscrutable Jarmuschian observation that turns a routine activity (a cab ride, say) into a miniature epic.

Such a significance search may overstate the obvious. Jarmusch's recurring leitmotif is the road adventure that goes nowhere and takes forever to get there, and here the fuel and tar are the titular stars. Coffee concludes with original underground film celebrity and Warhol superstar Taylor Mead, still boyishly angelic in his late 70s, pretending his paper-cup coffee is Champagne and that Gustav Mahler's "I Have Lost Track of the World" drifts through the New York armory where he sits with artist Bill Rice. It unwinds like an exhaling coda, though it may be a sly wink. You can graft meaning onto the idiosyncratic panorama painted by the whole cloth, but it may prove no match for an appropriately stimulated imagination.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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