This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
If you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with anybody in the world alive today, who would you choose?
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has done even better than that. He’s brought together many of his favorite pop culture figures and filmed them while they talk to each other over cups of coffee. He’s been doing this for twenty years, and now moviegoers get to enjoy the results. Coffee and Cigarettes is a film for people who want something more than predictable entertainment. It’s for people who love to watch people.
Coffee and Cigarettes is the latest experimental entry in a fascinating career. Jarmusch’s consistently challenging and innovative work has earned him cult status in independent filmmaking circles. For this film, he abandoned plot entirely and instead focused on documenting a variety of amusing, thoughtful, sometimes surreal interactions between his former cast members and various other musicians, actors, and familiar pop culture figures. This isn’t a documentary—the performers are working from sketchy scripts that lead to understated punchlines. But the pleasure of watching this collection of brief meetings is in the contrasting personalities, expressions, and improvisations that fill up the minimalist material.
Some of the meetings are more rewarding experiments than others.
The film opens with a meeting of spectacularly different personalities. The flamboyant and erratic Roberto Benigni—who starred in my favorite Jarmusch comedy Down by Law, as well as the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful—joins comedian Steven Wright, whose photograph belongs next to the word “deadpan” in the dictionary. Benigni’s faltering English and Wright’s worried mumbling lead to a feeble-at-best conversation that culminates in a moment of unlikely decision. This meeting was filmed all the way back in 1986.
The meeting between British comedian Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) and actor Alfred Molina is a hilarious play on Molina’s continuing lack of fame despite the incredible run of great films in which he has performed (Frida, Magnolia, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the upcoming Spider-Man 2). Coogan treats Molina like an annoying fan instead of as the great actor of stage and screen that he is. The plot thickens when Molina presents a startling discovery he’s made, and Coogan’s disregard for his colleague backfires.
Fans of actress Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings, Veronica Guerin, Elizabeth) will be delighted to see her deliver the film’s finest performance. Blanchett plays herself in a meeting with her cousin, who shows up at a ritzy hotel during a film junket to make sour remarks about the attitudes of the rich and famous. Blanchett plays both sides of the conversation so convincingly, some viewers may never figure out the joke.
My favorite meeting takes place between French-Canadian actors Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankole, who say very little out loud, but their interplay of critical and bewildered glances becomes a comedy in itself.
There’s a casual verbal sparring match between a couple of opinionated Italians (Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella), laced with excessive use of a certain expletive (you can guess which one) that might be offensive if it was used in a meaningful fashion. But only those who cannot tolerate encounters with profanity will come away without some affection for these cussing old coots. Sure, swearing, like smoking, is a bad habit. It just pollutes conversation and communication. And it usually betrays a certain sense of insecurity and weakness in those who do it. But sometimes characters who do swear can be endearing if only for how oblivious they are to their own foolish speech. As it is, the two fill the stereotypes formed from a thousand gangster flicks, reacting as if the entire world appalls them.
Other highlights include Bill Murray’s appearance in a feeble disguise as a diner waiter. He joins hip-hop artists RZA and GZA, who can’t seem to call him by anything but his full name as they advise him against drinking coffee straight from the pot. Rising alt-rock stars The White Stripes puff cigarettes and ponder a malfunctioning invention, one that everyone except its owner knows how to fix. Eccentric rock legend Tom Waits has an amusing meeting with Iggy Pop, who can’t avoid stepping on Waits’ toes, no matter how good his intentions.
Another interesting variation is the contrasting styles of the various cinematographers, including Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm), Robby Muller (Breaking the Waves), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and filmmaker Tom DiCillo (Stranger than Paradise). In the film’s most sublime episode, actors Taylor Mead and Bill Reed share a table at night behind a restaurant where the light illuminates Mead’s marvelous aged face in such a way to create a sort of holy moment—a picture worth capturing in a frame.
The conversations occasionally crisscross on similar themes and recurring statements, leading us to consider the way bits of news and quotable quotes thread their way from relationship to relationship, affecting each person differently. “The earth is a conductor of acoustical resonance,” they muse, some of them profoundly intrigued, others completely perplexed.
Many will walk away from Coffee and Cigarettes shaking their heads, wondering what the purpose of such a meandering, plotless, talky motion picture could be. Others will be bothered by the film’s frequently rough dialogue and the proliferation of nicotine. But it would be wrong to consider this a failed experiment. Viewers simply need to adjust their lenses to focus on smaller things, quieter moments, and quirks of personality.
It would also be out of line to call this a glorification of smoking. In fact, several characters voice the obvious detriments of smoking. Still, it’s undeniable that smoking can be an expressive and revealing act, and the huffing and puffing sometimes becomes a dialogue in itself. After a while, the cigarettes take on an almost symbolic significance, as if each smoke—and each cuppa joe as well—represent the common everyday moments that are burnt up, sipped away, with very little notice.
It is certainly fair to say that other filmmakers might have come up with more entertaining exchanges, wilder personality contrasts, and more imaginative situations than these. A few of the episodes never quite come to life. They never aspire to explore such ambitious territory as other “talk movies” like My Dinner with Andre or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Waking Life.
But Coffee and Cigarettes performs a valuable service, reminding us that moments of revelation and inspiration happen outside of the typical contexts of big screen movies. Jarmusch’s intention is to celebrate the simple things that bring us together, and to enjoy the wide variety of personal styles, faces, voices, and experiences that manifest themselves right in front of us every day. A film like this can help us enjoy each other more. It can help us appreciate how much we reveal about ourselves in our most casual and typical exchanges. It can also de-glamorize the cultivated images of celebrities and remind us how much we all have in common, how each one of us can make the briefest of encounters either meaningful, memorable, and revealing, or else cold, empty, and wasted.
The late Gene Siskel once commented that he sometimes measured films by whether or not they would be as good as a documentary of the same actors talking over lunch. He probably would have enjoyed this film. Hopefully Jarmusch will inspire other filmmakers to consider turning their cameras toward unconventional matters like this. Every hour of our lives is sacred and worth examining. And, really, how worthwhile is it to dwell on car chases, serial killers, scandals, and shallow romances anyway?