Coffee and Cigarettes

dir. Jarmusch

Opens Fri May 14

Various Theaters

Based upon the existentialist's perennial props--coffee, cigarettes--it's easy to assume Coffee and Cigarettes will fulfill the circular non-aspirations of '90s slacker art films. A collection of black-and-white shorts directed by Jim Jarmusch (some of which were in fact filmed in the '80s and '90s), it follows a formula similar to his 1991 film A Night on Earth: concretize the mise en scene (here, conversation over coffee and cigarettes) and flow in the players, for a portfolio in character interaction and bare direction.

It's a meditation on the extraordinary in the mundane--and, at first, it seems the emphasis is "mundane." In the opening short, Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, at a café, engage in not-funny Beckettian conversation too excruciating to duplicate here. Another short early in the film lends a tad more hope; set in Memphis, Steve Buscemi and twins Cinque and Joie Lee argue over each other and Elvis' appropriation of the blues. It's directed well, but even still; I have enough annoying, boring conversations that being privy to others' doesn't exactly excite me.

But, beginning with the short starring Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, magic starts to happen. As the scripts unloosen, tension between players becomes more genuine, recurring topics emerge, the magnetic pull of coffee and cigarettes is pondered, and the film attains a hypnotic shiplike sway. The tethering theme is social dynamic and personality friction, sometimes with excellent results. Cate Blanchett converses with herself in two disparate roles; Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina enact the ebb of fame. Two of the most charming pieces feature musicians as actors: in the first, Meg White and Jack White, argue casually over inventor Nicolai Tesla. The best, funniest short sees RZA and GZA (Wu-Tang), smoke-and-caffeine-free, advising a delirious Bill Murray in the avoidance of brain-altering drugs. Lament, addiction, friction, nostalgia, embarrassment, ego--these are sketched out with Jarmusch's empathetic eye and, despite the film's overall droll sheen, it turns out quite nicely. Godot is justified. The '90s are evoked, but not rehashed.