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Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Not to be inhaled deeply

Coffee and Cigarettes

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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There comes a point in many a band's career when, due to contractual obligations, a creative block or a stint in the rehab center, a stop-gap album of pure filler is deemed necessary. The idea is to just keep your name out there, but it can backfire: If the material released is sub-standard enough, people might not be waiting when the next "proper" release comes around.

News photo
Meg White in "Coffee and Cigarettes"

Enter Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," a filler album if ever there was one. Filmed between 1986 and 2003, the flick features various Jarmusch actors and acquaintances in 11 short vignettes, each of which involves actors sitting around a table, smoking butts, sipping some vile-looking joe and, basically, just shooting the bull.

Jarmusch started shooting these for fun, in-between his "real" projects (from "Mystery Train" to "Ghost Dog"), but given that some of his friends are famous, it was perhaps inevitable that these little throwaways would become a "film." That's truly a shame, because this lazy, banal, boring and pointless exercise will now become a permanent stain on Jarmusch's otherwise excellent filmography.

True, some wags out there will say all of Jarmusch's oeuvre, from "Stranger Than Paradise" right on down, has been an "exercise in boredom," but I beg to differ. He's always moved to his own rhythm, but the characters Jarmusch has put up on screen -- think of Lurie, Waits and Benigni in "Down by Law," or Forrest Whittaker in "Ghost Dog" -- have always commanded our attention. Each film has displayed a sly sense of humor, and a genuine story being told amid the drift and ennui.

Jarmusch's instincts fail him with "Coffee and Cigarettes." Admittedly, this is an improvisatory work -- people are simply sat in front of the camera and forced to perform -- but what we get is an hour and a half of people trying to make interesting small talk and generally not succeeding, a Warhol-damaged ode to nothing happening.

The film does itself no favors by opening with an embarrassingly unfunny sequence with actors Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. Benigni mugs it up, drinking espresso after espresso, his hands shaking. Wright tries to start a conversation, saying, "I like to drink a lot of coffee before I go to sleep, because I dream faster." Benigni, who speaks next to no English, looks on confused, saying, "I don't understand nothing."

Iggy Pop and Tom Waits are similarly flat, seemingly flummoxed by having to fill a whole eight minutes of onscreen time. Iggy will say something, Waits will react testily, and the conversation grinds to a halt. Repeat until one can of film has been shot. Actors Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankole spend their time with De Bankole convinced that Descas has some sort of problem, and Descas repeatedly tells him everything's fine.

One could say this is the typical Jarmusch riff on miscommunication, like with the Japanese tourists in "Mystery Train," or De Bankole's French-speaking N.Y.C. ice-cream vendor in "Ghost Dog." Maybe, but "Coffee and Cigarettes" takes it to autistic extremes. More fun could be had with coffee and cigarettes at your neighborhood Doutor, and no doubt the conversations you could overhear would be 10 times more engaging.

It's interesting to note the difference between the real professional actors and the rest, which is enormous. The pros have the chops to sit down and bring a sketch to life for a few minutes. Cate Blanchett appears solo, playing herself and her (imaginary) resentful cousin in an entertaining piece, while Alfred Molina ("Dead Man") and Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People") paint a bitter portrait of celebrity, with Coogan taking the piss out of himself as a conceited, pampered prat.

Overall, however, these are the only two segments that seem to have any direction or focus -- in a mediocre "Saturday Night Live" sketch sort of way -- and even stars like Steve Buscemi and Bill Murray can't save their skits' "comedy" from falling flat on its face. Murray even resorts to drinking coffee from the pot while RZA and GZA of Wu-tang Clan look on in amazement, but the laugh content is somewhere around the level of the op-ed pages.

The film ends with Bill Rice and octogenarian Taylor Mead drinking some truly swill-like java and pretending that it's champagne. Rice starts talking about Nicola Tesla, and Mead drawls, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Badda-bing. Griping about the coffee, Mead asks how much longer they have to be there, and finally giving up, he decides to take a nap. The viewer will likely have made the same decision far earlier.

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