Java man

Appealing quirky stories from the inimitable Jim Jarmusch

HAIRSPRAY Steven Wright (left) and Roberto Benigni star in the first scene of <i>Coffee & Cigarettes</i>, filmed in 1986 as a short for <i>Saturday Night Live</i>.

HAIRSPRAY Steven Wright (left) and Roberto Benigni star in the first scene of Coffee & Cigarettes, filmed in 1986 as a short for Saturday Night Live.

Coffee & Cigarettes
Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and many more. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The new Jim Jarmusch film isn’t entirely new—three of its 11 episodes were filmed more than a decade ago. But the combinations, and the individual stories themselves, are fresh and stimulating in the wry, laid-back way that bears Jarmusch’s cinematic signature.

Each of the stories involves the encounter of two or three characters over coffee and cigarettes within a café setting. Apart from similarities of circumstance and intermittently recurring topics of conversation, the individual episodes (all filmed in black and white) remain separate from each other in story terms, and that separateness contributes to a kind of pathos arising from the flawed and incomplete relationships that emerge in most of the episodes.

The cast is an intriguing mixture of movie actors (Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina, Bill Murray, etc.), musicians (Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Meg White and Jack White, RZA and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan) and assorted others, nearly all of whom are playing themselves (the notable exceptions being the second episode, in which Buscemi, Joie Lee and Cinque Lee play fictional characters, and the seventh, in which Blanchett plays a dual role—herself and a fictional cousin).

Bruised egos, failed communication and muddled identities recur throughout, but the overall mood is one of dark comedy. The opening (and eldest) episode, a nutty and nearly incoherent encounter between Benigni and comic Stephen Wright, feels like a fragment of Theater of the Absurd, while some of the more recent episodes (especially Blanchett’s tour de force and the encounter of Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan) might stand entirely on their own as miniature short stories in film form.

Even the slightest of the episodes (Renee French coping with an overattentive waiter) has the charm and irony of Jarmusch’s vision, and the moments of full-on wackiness (Bill Murray drinking coffee straight from the pot while yakking with hip-hoppers) maintain the funky gravity of the more low-key segments. And the film’s off-handed anthology form permits the qualities of individual episodes—the paradoxical wisecracking of Buscemi/Lee, the sidelong jousting of hipster musicians (Iggy and Tom), the mournful bliss of two old-timers (Bill Rice and Beatnik legend Taylor Mead)—to reverberate through the entire film.

Amid the ironic wisecracking and goofball put-ons, Coffee & Cigarettes also finds spots to cite Nikola Tesla ("He perceived the earth as a conductor of sonic resonance"). It also has "Louie Louie" on the soundtrack—the Richard Berry original near the beginning and the Iggy Pop version over the final credits. That too says something about the quirky appeal of this quietly surprising little film.