A Good Buzz


The first time through, you might dismiss Coffee and Cigarettes as a filmmaker’s recess, playtime before the serious business of making a real feature. Jim Jarmusch never intended this new movie, a collection of 11 shorts made over the past couple of decades, to be a movie at all. It began as a one-off in 1986, when he filmed Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright sharing coffee and smokes in a café that looked as though it had been bombed in 1944 and never rebuilt. The gag, which initially aired on Saturday Night Live, was a brilliant one, pairing the deadpan Wright with the jittery Benigni, who gladly takes the comedian’s dentist appointment because he has nothing better to do. It recalls the wonderful sparring scenes between Groucho and Chico Marx from the brothers’ later, more desperate movies; Benigni, who had just made Down by Law with Jarmusch, was a real-life Chico who spoke English as though he’d learned it that afternoon.

Jarmusch shot more shorts, filming them during the making of other movies or during occasional breaks; the one with Steve Buscemi as a waiter serving fraternal twins Joie and Cinqué Lee was shot in Memphis during the making of Mystery Train. An episode with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits was shot in 1993; many more, with Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and the White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray, were made only last year, when Jarmusch decided to ditch a troublesome feature in favor of completing a long movie made of many short ones. So, yes, you could dismiss it as a time-killing lark. But you would be wrong.

Watching Coffee and Cigarettes for the first time is like trying to digest a whole concept album in a single sitting. You have to revisit that record to appreciate the concept. Only over time does it jell. But Coffee and Cigarettes is really a collection of great pop songs: “Cousins,” performed by Cate Blanchett (and Cate Blanchett); “Somewhere in California,” with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits; “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” with the White Stripes; and “Delirium,” with RZA, GZA and Bill Murray. They’re bound by the obvious — in nearly each segment, the stars share a pack of smokes and a pot of joe — but also by the subtle. They share verses, lines of dialogue that appear in one short and reappear in a different context later on. They share riffs, including pictures of famous dead actors that hover over scenes. And they share themes, because it’s a movie in which famous people, or the nearly famous, play variations of themselves and misunderstand nearly everything the person across the table says. It’s a movie about discomfort and distance, like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show shot in deadpan black and white.

Some of the shorts are better than others. Blanchett as both herself and her bitter, grunged-out cousin offers a bittersweet chuckle. RZA and GZA referring to an on-the-lam Bill Murray only as ” Billmurray” is a gas. Pop and Waits as wary, defensive strangers are gleefully discomfiting. (Pop tells Waits, “You can call me Jim, Jimmy, Iggy, Jiggy.”) Best of all, in “Cousins?” Coogan belittles and flat-out rejects Molina’s invitation to be friends before realizing too late that he may be lower on the celebrity food chain. The gotcha look Molina gives him is priceless.

But even the lesser shorts will get your toes tapping, chiefly the final one, “Champagne,” in which Andy Warhol veteran Taylor Mead and his old collaborator Bill Rice pretend their sour coffee is actually champagne and that their lunch break in a dilapidated armory is really an afternoon spent on the Seine in the 1920s. It ends the film on a soft note, sung in the lonesome key of Mahler’s “I Have Lost Track of the World.” If only you could pick up the needle and play the whole thing over again. And again.

Categories: Music