MGM // 2004 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 7th, 2005
Steve Coogan: "Spike Jonze is a tree-hugger? I never had him down as
Alfred Molina: "I think he prefers the term 'leaf people'...as do I."
Writer/director Jim Jarmusch, the reigning king of hipster cinema, has been making his latest film, Coffee and Cigarettes, for 17 years. Beginning with a short film he made back in 1986, then followed by two more shorts (one in 1989, the other in 1993), the finished film then segues into new material, assembled by Jarmusch into another of his typically unique film experiences.
Trying to explain the plot of Coffee and Cigarettes is an exercise in futility, as there is no plot to explain. The movie is a series of eleven separate vignettes, none of which present a story as much as a conversation between two characters; the only connecting factor between the sequences is the titular caffeine and nicotine.
Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes is a funky, deadpan joke, and I mean that in the nicest way. Like Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal or (to a lesser extent) Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jarmusch's latest plays like an in-joke to his longtime fans -- it's a filmmaker's delirious exercise. The difference between the Jarmusch film and those other two is that his is not just a stunt; it stands on its own, managing to transcend what could have been a mere experiment. It's not the best film Jarmusch has made, but it might just be the most fun.
For a film that's essentially nothing but conversation, it's amazing how much is left unsaid -- the movie is about what these people don't say. Look at the scene between the two French men (played by French actors Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé, a Jarmusch regular) who know each other in a way that is never specified: One senses that something is wrong with the other, who repeatedly denies any problem, until the two realize that they cannot continue the conversation unless they are being heard. The sequence is written almost like a acting exercise, as though the actors were only given a few lines of dialogue they were allowed to use in the scene -- the lines continue to repeat, but somehow have a new meaning each time they're said. Everything that we need to know about these men's relationship and their history is made available in this exchange, yet it is up to the viewer to use what is not being to spoken to construct their own meaning of the scene.
Or look at the vignette titled "Renée," in which a girl (Renée French) sits in a coffee shop, quietly fending off a waiter who repeatedly tries to fill her coffee after she's gotten it at the perfect color and temperature for drinking (a small truth in and of itself); it's obvious that the waiter keeps coming back because he is interested, and that she is clearly not. Then comes a reveal (it's the book she's reading), though, that changes the entire context and meaning of the scene; like the rest of Jarmusch's sequences, it's up to us to fill in the blanks and draw our own conclusions.
The better-known actors and musicians (Jarmusch is often known to cast musicians in his films) in the movie -- those who have reached some kind of "celebrity" status -- play themselves, albeit exaggerated or parodied versions. In one of Jarmusch's original segments from 1993, Tom Waits (Short Cuts) and Iggy Pop meet in a diner as strangers (a common theme for each of the celebrity encounters -- each character is only aware of the other's work, with the reasons for their meeting often unspecified) and play a kind of one-upsmanship. Cate Blanchett (Veronica Guerin) shows up, playing both herself and her free-spirited cousin (kudos to Jarmusch for recognizing that if there's one thing better than a movie with Cate Blanchett, it's a movie with two Cate Blanchetts) in a segment that's shrewdly observational about the nature of celebrity; the cousin, clearly envious of Blanchett's success, remarks, "It's funny, isn't it? When you can't afford something, it's really expensive, and when you can afford it, it's, like, free." In the best vignette of the movie, Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) requests a meeting with fellow Brit Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) and proceeds to explain why he believes they're related; watch as the dynamic of the scene subtly shifts once Molina gets a phone call from a prominent director, and how it comments on opportunism and the Hollywood politic. And have I even mentioned Bill Murray moonlighting in a diner, waiting on members of the Wu-Tang Clan and chugging coffee straight from the pot?
Though the disc is light on extra material, MGM provides an otherwise solid presentation of Coffee and Cigarettes. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9 playback, and gives the black and white photography (credited to four different cinematographers, dating all the way back to Tom DiCillo, who shot Stranger Than Paradise for Jarmusch) stunning contrast and detail. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, though keeping most of the activity in only the front channels, delivers the dialogue clearly and cleanly. There are only a few supplements, though, and that's where the disc suffers most -- even the ones that are included don't add much to the experience. In addition to the movie's trailer and a couple of bonus trailers, there's a compilation of the various tabletop shots that appear throughout the film (side note about the photography: there are no camera moves -- no dolly shots, no pans, no zooms -- only a series of static setups cut together); an interview with Taylor Mead, whose career spans all the way from Midnight Cowboy to Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger, Part 4 and who appears in the movie's sweet final scene, plus a Bill Murray outtake -- and more Bill Murray can never be a bad thing.
I wouldn't recommend Coffee and Cigarettes to everyone -- at least, not right away (eventually, everyone should see everything). Fans of Jarmusch are sure to get a kick out of it, but casual viewers might be better off tracking down some of the director's earlier work. Getting a sense of history and context for the film allows for the viewer to better appreciate Coffee and Cigarettes for what it really is -- inconsequential, but so much fun.
I need some more cigarettes. And a refill, if you get a chance.
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Tabletops" Compilation
* Bill Murray Outtake
* Taylor Mead Interview
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailer
* Official Site