It’s kinda like improvisational jazz, a riffing on the downbeats of movies, this collection of short films by Jim Jarmusch. And like jazz—sez me, who’s not a big fan of most of the form—it’s not always successful. Sometimes it flows smooth and funky; sometimes it’s just clunking noise falling over itself. But when it’s good in Coffee and Cigarettes, it’s really, really good.
Is this the longest production schedule ever in the history of film? Not that it started out as a feature, of course, but the short with which Coffee opens was shot in 1986, when Saturday Night Live—then still interesting and relevant—asked Jarmusch for a contribution. He gave them “Strange to Meet You,” a bit of oddball nonsense in which comedian Steven Wright and actor/director Roberto Benigni meet in a coffeeshop. The two of them—neither one much in need of a stimulant—then proceed to consume mass quantities of caffeine and nicotine, and fidget and jitter their way through the weirdest of conversations. It’s classic Wright, which is good, and classic Benigni, which isn’t so good. For the duration of a short film, though, it’s more than tolerable.
Jarmusch shot a couple more of these in 1989 and 1992, with the balance thrown together over a few weeks last year. And though they’re carefully scripted by Jarmusch, and the intriguing cast members are not exactly playing themselves (though this often seems to be the case), there is a refreshing rough-and-tumble energy to the films, even the ones that don’t fully gel. Everyone’s having smart, creative fun—the actors appearing confident enough to poke some fun at themselves, Jarmusch exploring the negative spaces of other stories. Like in “Renée,” in which a woman (Renée French) sitting alone in a cafe is constantly pestered by the waiter (E.J. Rodriguez), who wants to refill her coffee or bring her something to eat. She’s a bit tarted up, with her big hair and overdone makeup, and she’s clearly waiting for someone. It’s easy to imagine that maybe it’s her mobster boyfriend, off doing something felonious in some other more exciting movie, who’s late again.
There’s a similar sense of history in “No Problem,” in which two old friends (Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas) meet after many years but can’t get past an unspoken worry that might be plaguing one of them. Their entire conversation is along the lines of “So, what’s the matter?” “Nothing.” “I can see that it isn’t.” “No, everything’s fine, really.”
The best pieces, though, are just downright delicious. Musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop just about steal the movie in “Somewhere in California,” in which the two discuss, well, coffee and cigarettes. Waits also reveals some surprising hobbies, and Pop manages to thoroughly insult Waits, completely unintentionally and thoroughly hilariously. Cate Blanchett is a close runner-up in “Cousins,” a mini tour de force for her astonishing talent and an ode to her incredible range. In this one-woman, two-character soap opera that’s both funny and poignant, she portrays both glamorous movie star Cate and her slouchy, punky cousin Shelly, visiting her celebrity relative while she’s on a press junket. The latter can barely contain her contempt for the former—not that Shelly’s not above taking advantage of the perks of Cate’s fame of wealth.
And then there’s the sort-of follow-up, “Cousins?” Alfred Molina invites actor Steve Coogan to tea in Los Angeles; Coogan presumes (incorrectly, it turns out) that it’s to discuss a possible movie project. Though the two native Brits have never met before, the latter can barely contain his totally unjustified contempt for the former’s Hollywoodized career. But Steve will get his comeuppance, and it will be perfect.
There’s more—pieces with Bill Murray, with Steve Buscemi, with bizarro “siblings” Jack and Meg White—all just people talking about weird things like Tesla coils and Elvis conspiracy theories over coffee and cigarettes. Sometimes it’s profound, sometimes it’s silly, but it’s always entertaining.
COFFEE AND CENTER>CIGARETTES , ***, Cate Blanchett, Steve Cooga, Bill Murray, Rated R