Vinny Vella Jr
Running Time: 96 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: United States
Indie director Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to the episodic ensemble film. His 'Mystery Train' (1989) told three stories all taking place on the same night in the same Memphis hotel, and his 'Night on Earth' (1992) followed the adventures of five taxi drivers in five different international cities on a single night. In his latest film, 'Coffee and Cigarettes', Jarmusch again turns to this flexible form, offering eleven short vignettes, all linked by the consumption (and discussion) of caffeine and nicotine in café settings, all marked by a whimsical quirkiness, all filmed in stunning black-and-white, and all featuring film- and music-stars playing fictional versions of themselves – not unlike Jarmusch's own appearance as himself in Wayne Wang's cigarette-celebrating 'Blue in the Face' (1995).
Despite the superficial similarities between them, Jarmusch uses his different vignettes to shift desultorily from one topic to the next like someone who has drunk too many espressos, resulting in a deliciously surreal sequence of conversations on subjects as varied as caffeine popsicles, Elvis' evil twin, the acquired taste of Japanese peas, the perks of celebrity, the legacy of Nikola Tesla, the surprises afforded by genealogy, the benefits of herbal tea and the delights of 1920s Paris (and late 1970s New York).
'Coffee and Cigarettes' is a project which has brewed over a long period of time, so that it is possible to trace in its different parts the different stages in Jarmusch's career. The first instalment, for example, gets its cinematographer (Tom DiCillo) and part of its title ('Strange to Meet You') from 'Stranger than Paradise' (1984), but was made with the same star (Roberto Benigni) and in the same year (1986) as 'Down By Law' – while the second instalment, 'Twins' (1989), plays like an outtake of 'Mystery Train' (also 1989), sharing that film's Memphis setting, its obsession with Elvis, and two of its stars (Steve Buscemi and Cinqué Lee). Three further episodes were filmed in 1992 (when Jarmusch also made 'Night On Earth'), and the rest in 2003 – but despite this unprecedently protracted production, Jarmusch's 'Coffee and Cigarettes' never seems stale or overstewed (and in fact the first episode is one of the funniest).
The film is like a great concept album – while some of the 'tracks' are without doubt better than others, all are too short to offend, there are plenty of iconic guest artists (e.g. from 'The White Stripes' and 'The Wu-Tang Clan') present to distract from the less interesting material, and there are enough echoes of phrase and theme running from one piece to the next to suggest a unified whole greater than the sum of its parts. Two of the finest episodes dramatise with unflattering hilarity the petty professional rivalries between (fictionalised versions of) Iggy Pop and Tom Waits ('Somewhere in California') and Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina ('Cousins?'), while another ('Cousins') features an awkward meeting between international star Cate Blanchett and her nobody cousin (also played by Blanchett) that is a tour de force of bipolar acting. Best of all, however, is the downbeat finale 'Champagne', which muses grimly on coffee breaks, waiting and death in the manner of Samuel Beckett, casting a dark shadow over all the fey frivolity that has preceded. After all, good coffee is supposed to leave a bitter aftertaste.
It's Got: Stunning black-and-white cinematography from Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Müller and Tom DiCillo; Tom Waits and RZA dividing their time between music and medicine, and Bill Murray working undercover as a waiter; Steve Coogan asking Alfred Molina if he is gay, while Molina insists that he is one of the Leaf People; lots of coffee, cigarettes - and even tea.
It Needs: In one or two of the episodes (e.g. Delirium and Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil), having secured big-name stars (GZA, RZA, Meg and Jack White, even Bill Murray), Jarmusch seems unsure what to do with them beyond referring repeatedly to their presence.
Alternatives:Blue in the Face, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Slacker
Eleven smart breaks from everyday reality.