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May 2004

By Julian Roman

Coffee & Cigarettes
Distributor: United Artists (MGM)
Producer: Jason Kliot
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joe Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella, Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Cate Blanchett, Meg White, Jack White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead


Coffee and Cigarettes is the latest offering from indie film guru Jim Jarmusch. Latest is a loose term here, as the film has been in the works since 1986. The film is a collection of comedic shorts, shot in black and white, over coffee and cigarettes. The project started eighteen years ago when the first short, Steven Wright and Roberto Bennini, was filmed for Saturday Night Live. Over the years Jarmusch compiled more segments, completing the series in 2003. It's hit or miss as far as the segments go. Some are boring and nonsensical while others are hilarious and brilliantly performed. The overall entertainment value of the film is wanting, but Jarmusch does accomplish something that's distinctly his style. There's a lot of star power in the film. Half the fun is watching people who you'd think would never be in the same place interact. For the purpose of this review, I'll write about the vignettes that were good. The ones that were bad all suffered from the same problem. They weren't funny and their subject matters were uninteresting.

The best short in the film is the meeting of Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Steve Coogan is like Eddie Murphy in England. He's best know here for the film 24-Hour Party People. Alfred meets Steve in a trendy LA bar. They've never met and Alfred has discovered, through family research, that Steve is a distant cousin. At first Steve thinks Alfred is coming on to him; then he thinks he's lured him there to pitch a project. Needless to say, Alfred is taken a bit back by Steve reaction. This scene is hilarious, knockdown, drag out funny. It sears with wit. Alfred and Steve have great comic timing. They play of each other and you realize these guys are acting masters.

Cate Blanchett plays a dual role as herself and a cousin that comes to visit her. This scene was not the funniest, but I daresay is the best dual role performance I've ever seen. There were times when I actually wondered whether Cate was playing both parts. Her performance and the filmmaking is that good. The setting is the cafe of a ritzy hotel. Cate, looking prim and proper, meets her cousin for tea. The cousin has long black hair, is clad in black leather, and looks like a poster girl for the heavy-metal movement. The conflict in the scene is the jealousy the cousin feels about Cate's movie star status. It gets better when Cate turns out to be the prima donna her cousin thinks she is. Cate, you can never say enough great things about her. She is a superb actress and totally sells both parts. Combine that with Jarmusch's slick editing and the scene is wonderful to see.

The final short of film stars GZA and RZA of the Wu-tang Clan and Bill Murray. GZA and RZA are having tea when Bill Murray comes to serve them. They're astonished to find Bill Murray as their server. It turns out that he's hiding out from celebrity. He's been sick, but RZA is there to offer free medical advice. Turns out RZA is a holistic healer and expert in herbal medicines. His advice is sadistic, but he doesn't expect Bill Murray to take him seriously. The whole idea of RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray interacting is funny, but they do better and actually perform well. Bill Murray owns the scene and reminds us how criminal it was for him to lose the Oscar last year.

There are a few mediocre scenes in the film. They weren't especially funny or interesting, but are worth watching. There's a scene with dark comic artist Renee French, who's en fuego with babehood, that's the best mood short in the film. Coffee and Cigarettes doesn't have any deep philosophical meaning to it. At least I don't think so. Jarmusch may have had some serious context in there that I totally missed. The film is more of a free form musing of life in black and white. Hence the color relation with coffee and cigarettes. I found out that Jarmusch wrote most of the scenes, but there was a lot of improvisation going on. For example, the Alfred Molina Steve Coogan scene had a breakdown, but the actors improved around that. This film is very arty. It'll be appreciated by people who like Jarmusch's work and are really into independent film. Mass audiences would probably be very disappointed if they paid $10 to see it.