Sunday, May 30, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2004 at Coolidge Corner #1 (first-run)

Jim Jarmusch has been making these little films since 1987 - black and white, featuring a couple people in a café, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and talking. These folks are celebrities, most playing a somewhat caricatured version of themselves. Somewhere inside each of the eleven segments, someone will mention that coffee and cigarettes isn't much of a lunch. It has the potential to get repetitive, and some quite frankly aren't terribly entertaining. They are, however, more than balanced by the ones which are hilarious.

The funniest are, by and large, the ones with a sort of tension to them, where people are meeting for the first time and one is clearly more impressed with the other than vice versa. After a forced conversation between Steven Wright and Roberto Begigni (whose two styles don't match well at all) and a downright peculiar bit where Joie and Cinqué Lee have Steve Buscemi as a waiter, we get the first bit that is pure gold: Iggy Pop meeting up with Tom Waits, with Waits being subtly hostile to Iggy. A similar tactic is used later on, in the segment entitled "Cousins?", with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meeting, with Molina being a big fan of Coogan's work and Coogan being "aware" of Molina's. It's a refined bit of conversational combat.

A number of the segments are just odd, some working much better than others. "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil", for instance, features Jack & Meg White of The White Stripes talking while Jack's Tesla coil sits off to the side in a little red wagon. It's probably the most outright peculiar segment, although most have a sort of unpredictability to them. The characters share names with the actors, and mostly seem like their public personae, but have just enough eccentricity that it's seldom clear where the individual quirks stop and the acting begins. Especially with the ones who may not be familiar - this is Renée French's only credit, so how much of the femme fatale type she plays is a character and how much is Jarmusch wanting to capture someone he knows. That's part of the appeal, too - in a segment where Cate Blanchett plays herself and a cousin with a striking resemblence (but a wholly different personality), we wonder which character more aptly represents the real Cate.

Writer/director Jim Jarmusch stumbles, on occasion, though he's got talented performers to smooth it over. The portion with Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and RZA awkwardly references the other segments, but has Bill Murray, who can do deadpan eccentric better than anyone. There is a fair amount of repetition here (it's hard not to be aware of him re-using the overhead shot, for instance), but the film manages to be original and unpredictable through most of its runtime, and delivers some very big laughs.

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