erik lundegaard

Coffee and Cigarettes
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Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)

Rumor has it that, after completing a short story, Ernest Hemingway would remove his favorite sentence. He felt that any sentence that was so outstanding would—by definition—stand out, and the story would lose consistency.

If filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (“Down By Law,” “Ghost Dog”) were as masochistic as Hemingway, he would’ve taken his latest film, “Coffee and Cigarettes”—which consists of 11 black-and-white vignettes of people meeting briefly in coffee shops, and using and talking about the titular items—and cut the short, “Cousins?,” starring Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. It stands way, way out.

Written byJim Jarmusch
Directed byJim Jarmusch
StarringRoberto Begnini
Steven Wright
Steve Buscemi
Iggy Pop
Cate Blanchett

Five of the vignettes were filmed before 1993, the last six (including “Cousins?”) during a two-week binge in early 2003, and they are presented more or less in chronological order.

The first, with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, was filmed in 1986 for “Saturday Night Live,” and it sets the tone. Benigni sits alone, drinking and smoking nervously; Wright joins him. They introduce themselves. Why are they meeting? We don’t know. Neither do they. They talk briefly about coffee and cigarettes. Wright mentions how he likes to drink coffee before going to bed so he can dream faster. There are long pauses and overhead shots of the table. They get off another good joke and then leave. This describes most of the vignettes.

Remember those nature films where two animal species are tossed into the same shot and the result is filmed? Without any fighting or scratching, that’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” There’s almost an existential flavor to the vignettes. Why do Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet? Who is Renee and why is she reading about motorcycles and guns? Why do Jack and Meg White sit in silence for nearly a minute before Jack begins to demonstrate a lightning-generating Tesla Coil he dragged to the shop? Why is Bill Murray—the real Bill Murray, identified as Bill “Groundhog Day” Murray—acting as waiter to RZA and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan? We don’t know. They don’t know.

The film may have the coolest cast ever, but here’s a little secret: There are few things more boring than cool. Cool keeps to itself; cool doesn’t reveal itself. For cool to be cool, it has to be part of a larger story. Here it’s not.

It’s the Brits—Molina and Coogan—who give the Americans a lesson in short filmmaking. We understand why they’re meeting. Molina has something important to tell Coogan, while Coogan doesn’t seem interested. Coogan’s distracted by his own fame, and by Molina’s apparent lack of it. Their comic timing is perfect. Near the end, Molina says a line that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve heard in the movies in years. Years. I must’ve missed the next 10 seconds of dialogue because I was laughing so hard. My apologies to the preview crowd at the Metro.

Others acquit themselves well—in particular, Steve Buscemi, as an Elvis-loving waiter, and Cate Blanchett, who plays both roles in her vignette. But my advice is to wait for the DVD release, then just watch Molina and Coogan. Get most of the laughs and save yourself 90 minutes.

—Origianlly appeared in The Seattle Times on May 21, 2004

© 2004 Erik Lundegaard