In 1986, Jim Jarmusch sat down slow-talker Steven Wright and whirling dervish Roberto Benigni with a mess of coffee and cigarettes and encouraged them to riff a meet-weird scene. Ever since, Jarmusch has looked for new ways to exploit this basic idea which celebrates his passions for caffeine and nicotine, as well as talking.
Finally, the long-aborning result emerges as Coffee and Cigarettes, a feature-length collection of eleven short films united in theme and style. For those thinking about taking the plunge, know that Coffee and Cigarettes is sitting and talking and drinking and smoking--that's it. Within those trifling parameters, Coffee and Cigarettes is well worth watching...once.
Each segment groups odd couples or odder trios for largely improvised conversational meanderings with titles like "Strange to Meet You" (Wright and Benigni), "Somewhere in California" (Iggy Pop and Tom Waits in a dive-bar cool contest), and "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil," in which the White (Stripes) siblings consider Nikola Tesla's creation. This is inherently hit-and-miss stuff, and for quite some time after the bizarre stimulant that is the Wright-Benigni duet, the film lies flopping like a beached fish.
But Jarmusch hits his stride with a drily funny short ("No Problem") in which Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé play out a time-consuming, minimalist, and surprisingly funny joke which exemplifies Jarmusch's talent for droll understatement. In quick succession, Jarmusch serves up his best blends: a logistically impressive and theatrically satisfying scene in which Cate Blanchett plays both a self-absorbed version of herself and her own fictional cousin, an excruciatingly funny examination of petty Hollywood behavior play-acted by Brits Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and a plain-silly outing with RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray (swigging his coffee right out of the pot), followed by a film-capping existential dialogue between stage actors William Rice and Taylor Mead.
Jarmusch establishes a motif of overhead shots of the coffee-and-cigarette-ridden tables, which doubles as an ethnographic record of animal habits and (more importantly) an essential editing device. To these ends and others, the director adds the value of high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, by the likes of Frederick Elmes ("Blue Velvet"), Robby Müller (Breaking the Waves), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and director Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion).
Lame jokes and failed ad-libbing notwithstanding, Coffee and Cigarettes is above-average, as experimental larks go. Jarmusch appropriately explores the ambivalent relationship stimulant users have with their back-monkeys. Pop waxes enthusiastic ("Cigarettes and coffee, man—that's a combination"), but a film-spanning refrain poses the question, "Is that all you're having for lunch: coffee and cigarettes? Not very healthy." True, but in moderation, it won't kill you.