Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is a series of 11 short, dialogue-based scenes, gradually compiled over the past decade or so. A few threads and references turn up throughout, but essentially, the film is about a bunch of different people smoking (cigarettes) and drinking (coffee). This creates a contrast, perhaps inadvertent, with usual movies about drug addiction and alcoholism.
On its own terms, Coffee and Cigarettes is an effective addiction movie, self-indulgent but also familiar and low-key. It also lacks the baggage of more “important” addiction movies, where a sense of “responsibility” overwhelms content. It’s difficult for such films to be about much of anything besides either the hell of an addiction or the scrappy glory of triumphing over one (unless the movie simply ignores real-life implications, as in comedies featuring binge drinking). Coffee and Cigarettes has its sketch-characters using the titular poisons as crutches, but it’s too relaxed and experimental to cast judgment (or else Jarmusch is too much of a nicotine and caffeine apologist to push the issue).
Regardless of what it says or doesn’t say about addiction, Coffee and Cigarettes is a mostly functioning comedy of loosely connected non-sequiturs (call them semi-sequiturs). Because it employs great actors like Steve Buscemi, Bill Murray, and Steve Coogan, as well as musicians like Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, and the White Stripes, the film plays like a compendium of stolen scenes, shaped ever so slightly into a more stationary Waking Life. Though Jarmusch employs several different technical teams to shoot these segments, the setups and editing rhythms are often similar; the film’s most repeated shot is an overhead of a table, coffee cups scattered over the surface, actors in the corners of the frame. Although the black and white photography is consistently gorgeous, the visuals are only sometimes striking.
The movie rises and falls on the strength of its parts. Thankfully, there’s only one real dud among the 11, a threadbare scene where two French actors argue about who is feeling troubled and who called the other to the diner. It’s like a sulky Abbott and Costello routine. Elsewhere, Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni (in the first of the shorts, which originally aired on Saturday Night Live in 1986) are similarly shticky, and not particularly well-matched. This is probably intentional, and maybe the piece is intended as a sort of meta-comedy satire, but Jarmusch does better elsewhere.
Much press will be given to Murray’s late-night riff, as he’s waiting on rappers RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, and with good cause: it’s one of the funniest, as the coffee here goes straight from the pot into Murray’s mouth (if this amusing sight feels familiar, it’s because Murray is reprising a quick bit from Groundhog Day). But there are highlights throughout, including Cate Blanchett at the center of a sort of dark twist on The Patty Duke Show and what feels like a bit of old-school improv between Coogan and Alfred Molina. At its frequent best, the movie’s rambling nature allows it to take repeated 10-minute detours that might not fly in a narrative feature.
My imagination was piqued, for example, by a willfully strange bit in which Jack and Meg White discuss the Tesla coil and the scientist Tesla, who was not given proper credit for the influence his machine had on the world. Jarmusch perfectly captures the pair’s fractured innocence and amusing tensions — Jack is serious and arcane while Meg quietly undercuts him. Earlier in the film, the engaging, fittingly haggard back-and-forth he provides for Waits and Iggy Pop suggests that Jarmusch may one day make a great rock movie, Year of the Horse notwithstanding. The Coffee and Cigarettes project is great training: avoiding the clichés of addiction could be half the battle.