Devotees of Jim Jarmusch’s peculiarly minimalist style of humor will doubtlessly swoon over his latest effort, a collection of conversational vignettes, all involving people talking while drinking coffee and smoking, that’s been almost two decades in the making (the first three episodes were shot in 1986, 1989 and 1993, and earlier shown as short films). But those unacquainted with his prior work, or resistant to his charms, are likely to find much of “Coffee and Cigarettes” drab and oddly smug. It comes across as the work of a filmmaker so convinced of his own hipness and secure in his cult status that he needn’t concern himself with such niceties as clever writing or interesting characters.
If I count correctly, there are eleven segments to the picture, of which one is excellent, three intriguing if not entirely successful, and the remainder tiresome if not completely irritating–not a great batting average. The initial three, previously-released episodes pretty much set the tone of laid-back goofiness that goes nowhere. In the first, Roberto Benigni and Stephen Wright play a couple of guys who introduce themselves in what’s apparently a coffee shop, do a jerky routine of non-sequiturs, and separate when the former agrees to go to the latter’s dental appointment. Then Steve Buscemi shows up as a scruffy waiter in another place, where he regales twins Joie and Cinque Lee with an absurd conspiracy theory about Elvis Presley’s hidden brother. This is followed by an improvisational bit by Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, who talk about not smoking and drinking coffee while doing precisely that. The new material opens with tough old guys Joe Rigano and Vinny Velia arguing about coffee and cigarettes over what appears to be lunch while the former’s mute son occasionally pops in to ask his father for cash. Then Renee French plays a woman bothered by a waiter (E.J. Rodriguez) who tries to give her refills she doesn’t want, and Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankole show up as two immigrants who haven’t seen one another in awhile but can’t communicate because the one believes the other to be withholding the truth about his problems. Up to this point “Coffee and Cigarettes” has hit basically two notes–dull and duller–but finally things perks up a bit with Cate Blanchett doing double duty as a star who invites her cousin, a hapless rocker, to a tete-a-tete in a hotel restaurant. Their strained conversation isn’t terribly revealing, but Blanchett shows range in the dual role, and the split-screen requirement at least expands the piece’s technical facility. Another valley follows in the form of a desultory encounter between Meg and Jack White over a contraption he’s built after the theories of Tesla, whose ideas about energy apparently are meant to serve as a theme undergirding the collection. The picture then suddenly perks up with its unquestionable highpoint, a funny (and comprehensible) encounter between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan in which the former modestly presents evidence that he’s a cousin of the latter, portrayed as an arrogant and supercilious sort; this segment is genuinely amusing and well played, and the fact that the snobbish Coogan gets his comeuppance means it even has a resolution. Things slide somewhat in a trio between rappers Gza, Rza and Bill Murray (the latter pretending to be waiter, for reasons that remain obscure), but there’s still a goofy charm to the piece; and there’s an enigmatic valedictory feel to the final segment, in which oldsters Bill Rice and Taylor Mead discuss their hopes and dreams while talking about, among other things, an ethereal Mahler song.
If one could separate out the four episodes in “Coffee and Cigarettes” that are worth trying–the seventh and the final three–it might make a thirty-minute short film worth watching. Unfortunately, that’s not how cinematic anthologies work. As a whole the picture isn’t just precious, in the typical Jarmusch fashion, but rambling and inconsequential. Technically it exhibits the bare-bones style typical of his work: there may be some pregnant meaning to the periodic shots from above of checker-board tabletops, on which coffee cups are arranged like chess pieces, or to the fact that in some episodes walls bear portraits of actors staring out at us in prominent places (Henry Silva in one case, Lee Marvin in another), but if so it escapes this viewer. As for the title, it obviously refers to the items most (though not all) of the various characters are indulging in; but the picture itself delivers neither the energy of caffeine nor the rush of nicotine. And for most viewers it’s likely to prove far from addictive.