"You're having coffee and cigarettes for lunch? That's not healthy!"
Once you have accepted the fact that you are an addicted smoker, it becomes apparent that your life in now cut up into palpable and discrete segments of time — what life task can I fit into the next hour before it is time for the next cigarette? And then, when you can finally relax in a bar or a cafe with a friend, you can experience a feeling of intense reality, of condensed time — the ability to have a conversation, enjoy a beverage and smoke at will — simultaneously!
The independent film hero Jim Jarmusch's latest is an examination of this condensed, hyper-real time, only with famous people. Coffee and Cigarettes is a series of eleven vignettes, filmed in black and white, with the likes of Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi, and Jack and Meg White sitting around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and just talking. A My Dinner with Andre for hipsters, if you will.
Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man) started filming these segments eighteen years ago, asking his famous and/or interesting friends to participate, without really knowing how the overall film was going to take shape. The fun of the concept carries over into each short film; but so does the vagueness of the overall intention. Not surprisingly, some of the segments are engaging, and others too slight to be anything other than slightly amusing.
In addition to the theme of coffee, cigarettes and conversation, the resulting film feels like rumination on another 'c' — celebrity. Whether this theme was intentional or just came about over time is hard to say. But when Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet for a cup of coffee, there is no way you cannot look at the screen and think, "Iggy Pop and Tom Waits are having a conversation — Let's listen!" Unfortunately, rather than having them talk to each as just themselves, Jarmusch has scripted scenarios with exaggerated versions of their celebrity personas, which is not half as interesting as what a real conversation between them (I assume) would be. When GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan meet Bill Murray at a restaurant, they start each line with "So, Bill Murray…", which explicitly points to the absurdity of celebrity, where any attempt to conceive of the reality that Bill Murray is an actual living and breathing person sitting in front of them, rather than some iconic figure, is almost impossible to realize. In a feature film, it is possible to forget you are watching a famous actor as the character and story develop, but not in short pieces such as these.
So perhaps Jarmusch ended up riffing on the nature of celebrity by necessity. In some cases, as with the amazing Cate Blanchett playing both herself and her cousin meeting in a hotel lobby, or when Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan perform a skit about insider Hollywood, it works well due to the talent of the actors involved. However, most of this film is just a light and breezy affair — an excuse to film interesting people having fun on camera. If that sounds like your cup of tea (or coffee) and you are a fan of Jarmusch and his style, than by all means see the film. A word of warning: with all the smoking and references to smoking in the film, smokers may want to wait for it on video so you can pause after each segment and have a cigarette.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the lovingly-lit overhead camera shots of the various cafe tables included in the film. In high contrast black and white, the square tables and cigarette packs, the round ashtrays, and the perfect circles of black coffee in white cups and saucers — these shots comprise a beautiful film essay in of itself.