Coffee and Cigarettes is a return, of sorts, for Jim Jarmusch. It takes him back to the black and white, wise-vignette style filmmaking of Stranger Than Paradise (1983) or the riffs on a theme of Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991) or even the elegant looseness of Down By Law (1986). Low budget and low “speed” (in the sense that conversations over the titular substances don’t move especially quickly, or engage grand-scaled philosophies), the film is really a set of 10 film-ettes, shot over a decade, featuring friends of the director and some well known figures, all eccentric, all compelling.
The collection is held together by what might be termed a thematic focus (the coffee and cigarettes, or more generally, the medicinal uses of addictions and obsessions), the weird ways in which most of the actors are playing “themselves,” and some formal repetitions: the camera, wielded by brilliant cinematographers Tom DiCillo, Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, and Robby Müller, returns to the overhead shots of coffee cups and ashtrays on checkerboard-clothed café tables, or close-ups of participants as they talk around what they want or show off what they might know while revealing what they can’t.
The film opens with a signature Jarmuschian scene, Roberto Benigni (of Down By Law, along with Tom Waits and John Lurie) and Steven Wright meeting in a busted-up-walled café, professing their deep affection for coffee, their hands shaking while transporting clattery cups of espresso to their nicotine-stained lips. Wright likes especially to drink coffee before he goes to sleep, he says, because it helps him to “dream fast.” The two go on to imagine the ideal system of indoctrination, caffeine Popsicles, which might train young consumers to give themselves over to a relatively “happy” addiction. And with that, Begnini offers Wright an odd but telling gift, to go to a dentist’s appointment in his stead — an offer at once generous and utterly strange. Wright’s fine with the deal, and is left, at his scene’s end, alone in the café, stirring his espresso.
Other scenes are as cryptic, though some are less successfully paced than others. Iggy Pop meets up in a diner wit Tom Waits, their conversation circling celebrity as a kind of cover for identity. After briefly congratulating themselves on quitting cigarettes, are quick to pick up smokes to go with their coffee (“I can now,” boasts Waits, “Because I quit,” as Iggy enthuses while he puffs away, “I feel sorry for all those suckers, still puffing away”). Waits tells a story about his day, revealing that he’s a doctor as well as a musician. “There’s nothing worse than roadside surgery,” he mutters while recalling the morning’s baby delivery, “You don’t have your tools.” Iggy looks properly astonished, as Waits explains, “Music and medicine, I’m living in a place where they overlap.”
Each a singular star for his appearance and vocal rhythms as much as his genius, Iggy and Waits also represent some strangeness extending beyond themselves. Whatever place they’re living in, it’s only vaguely familiar to the rest of us, though it’s pleasurable to look in on from time to time. As they recognize this in one another, they also share a sort of expectation of one another, and when each seems less interesting than he might have been, they’re ready to part, even before their conversation begins, when Iggy challenges Waits’ edgy self-image (just why is he a regular customer at a diner where the jukebox doesn’t feature his songs?).
Other friends, of a deeper sort, Alex Descas (Mobutu in Raoul Peck’s excellent Lumumba) and Isaach de Bankolé (Raymond in Ghost Dog) meet on the occasion of an apparently rare phone call from Alex to Isaach. Suspecting that there’s “something wrong,” Isaach can’t get past this question in the conversation, and so it devolves into the sort of non-communicative spiraling that characterizes so many of the exchanges in this and other Jarmusch films — one character’s doubt (of self and someone else), as well as desire, makes it impossible to hear what the other is saying.
Two cousins on a definitive, if slightly otherworldly wavelength appear in “Delirium.” Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA (who worked with Forrest Whitaker and Jarmusch on Ghost Dog) and GZA sit in a restaurant after hours. Discussing his innovative combinations of alternative medicine and music (“two planets circling around the same sun”), RZA provides a clever gloss on his own numerologizing and Eastern philosophizing, by way of an acute sense of irony and good humor at his own expense (“Crisp and clean,” he rhymes, “No caffeine”). Both the ZAs are duly entertained by the arrival at their table of waiter Bill Murray (whom they repeatedly call by his full name, as a kind of punctuation to every address, as in, “Are you a bug, Bill Murray?”). When they warn him that caffeine brings on “serious delirium,” Bill Murray glugs the brew straight from the pot, as RZA and GZA watch, amazed.
Similarly interested in the peculiarities of celebrity is “Cousins,” where Cate Blanchett plays herself as a junketeering movie star, who takes a few minutes out of her interview schedule to meet with her dark-haired, t-shirted cousin Shelby. Unimpressed with the bag of expensive swag Cate offers her, Shelby is increasingly agitated at her famous cousin’s lack of attention or empathy: movie stars, it appears, live on their own planets, each alone and anxious in her own way. (Which is not to say that Shelby is any more or less distracted or coherent — her hair is less perfectly coiffed is all.)
Another set of cousins (far removed, apparently) is devised in a scene featuring Alfred Molina, who has charted his family tree only to find that Steve Coogan is a distant relative. Unmoved by the discovery, Coogan rudely insinuates he has no time for Molina, now residing in L.A. with a just-cancelled sitcom. Only when he overhears Molina’s phone call with an apparent good buddy who is a bona fide celeb does Coogan suggest that they ought to stay in touch, a last minute effort that Molina agrees is “shabby,” before he dismisses it.
Other siblings (or are they?) Meg and Jack White sit in a dark café discussing the Tesla Coil, whereupon Jack demonstrates his own tinkered-together version of the invention, which he’s hauled down to the café on a red wagon. And still another familial continuum emerges in a section titled “Twins.” Here Cinqué and Joie Lee (Spike’s siblings, who’ve both worked with Jarmusch in the past) endure the attention of their waiter (Steve Buscemi), who says they remind him of “Heckyl and Jeckyl, you know, those cackling magpies,” even as the twins roll their eyes in disbelief at his blundering offensiveness.
All these and other connections in Coffee and Cigarettes, oblique as well as unavoidable, outline the provocative method to Jarmusch’s seeming anarchy. Patterns of rhythm, desire, and self-invention, strategies of survival and addiction: the film finds the sameness in difference.