- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Occasionally, a movie gets made for no other point than that self-deprecating people who happen to be famous feel like making it.

“Coffee and Cigarettes,” an anthology of rich black-and-white vignettes from king-of-quirk director Jim Jarmusch, is peopled with celebrities — rock stars, actors and comedians — playing themselves at a half-step removed from their public personae.

Mr. Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”) started filming the sketches in 1986, the first a “Saturday Night Live” bit with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni rapping about dental appointments and cups of joe before bed. The last is a melancholy reminiscence with Taylor Mead and Bill Rice as janitors on a coffee break.

The theme that connects the bits is the bonhomie of diners and cafes, the inherent sociality of nicotine and caffeine. The recurring joke is that coffee and cigarettes alone do not a meal make. But then, no one looks like he’s starving here.

Surgeon-general types and health cops will tsk-tsk “Coffee and Cigarettes,” but it’s not meant for them. It’s meant for conversationalists who have experienced the pleasure of a midnight omelet and who don’t say latte when they mean milk.

Mr. Jarmusch’s use of highly saturated black-and-white film stock is appropriate because it does, indeed, seem like forever since one could smoke in Manhattan and walk a city block without seeing a Starbucks. Plus, it was a handy unifier for material filmed over 18 years.

Some of the sketches are more compelling than others. The awkward miscommunication between Isaach de Bankole (“Chocolat”) and French actor Alex Descas never catches its tail, while a scene with Jack and Meg White conversing beside a Tesla coil is deliciously bizarre. (Watch the look on Jack’s face when Meg brings up the rock band Tesla, named for Jack’s hero, inventor Nikola Tesla.)

Wu-Tang Clan rappers GZA and RZA needling Bill Murray, who appears as a coffee-pot-guzzling waiter, wasn’t as funny as it should have been, whereas watching an aloof Renee French thumb through a handgun glossy was funny in an odd, hesitant sort of way.

The two standouts directly poke fun at pampered celebrity. In a plush hotel lounge, Cate Blanchett and a body double playing her punky cousin “Shelly” dance around their have and have-not situations, with Shelly calling Cate out for re-gifting a bag of expensive makeup she never had to pay for.

Alfred Molina and Steven Coogan, the British TV comedian, meet for tea, the latter trying painfully to keep an admiring Mr. Molina at arm’s length — until he finds out the “Boogie Nights” actor is tight with a certain movie director by the first name of Spike.

Appropriately for a movie with rock stars such as Iggy Pop and Tom Waits and E.J. Rodriguez, a drummer habitue of New York’s downtown jazz scene, “Coffee and Cigarettes” is strong on soundtrack. Whether it’s the Stooges or Funkadelic or Tommy James and the Shondelles crooning “Crimson and Clover,” Mr. Jarmusch’s jukebox is always moment-fitting.

Add good tunes to coffee and cigarettes. Then you’ll have your well-balanced meal.


TITLE: “Coffee and Cigarettes”

RATING: R (Profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Produced by Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot. Cinematography by Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Muller and Tom Dicillo.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.coffeeandcigarettesmovie.com


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