Thursday, June 05, 2008

Coffee and Cigarettes

Think of the unlikeliest subject for a feature-length movie - the slowest, talkiest, most static premise imaginable - and you'd be hard-pressed to top Jim Jarmusch's 'Coffee and Cigarettes'*.

Having already redefined the portmanteau film with 'Mystery Train' and 'Night on Earth' - as well as stamping his quirky, indie sensibilities on the western with 'Dead Man' and the gangster flick with 'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai' - 'Coffee and Cigarettes' sees Jarmusch assemble his most impressive cast yet for arguably one of his most small scale films.

All it is, essentially, is a sequence of eleven vignettes which throw together unlikely pairings in cafes, bars, hotel foyers and roadhouses, who sit and talk over a cup of coffee and a smoke.

Kinda boring, right?

Wrong! It's who these people are and what they talk about that counts. Variously satirical, cynical, charming, funny and poignant, each episode has its own flavour, its own mood. All the characters, most of whom we only get to meet for a few minutes, are vividly sketched and finely nuanced. The black and white cinematography is richly textured. During the last few episodes, Jarmusch revisits key phrases and themes from earlier in the movie, a device that would have felt contrived in the hands of many directors but here seems natural and unforced.

And then there's the cast. Bill Murray goes on a caffeine binge while GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan try to calm him down by suggesting herbal remedies; Cinque and Joie Lee (Spike Lee's children) try to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee while Steve Buscemi harangues them with Elvis-based conspiracy theories; White Stripes siblings Jack and Meg debate the scientific validity of the Tesla coil; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits conduct a chess-like game of one-upmanship over whose songs are represented on the jukebox in a grubby little diner; and Renee French patiently resists the bumbling overtures of diffident waiter E.J. Rodriguez.

The longest and most acidic scene has Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina essay a masterclass in actorly egomania and Hollywood insincerity. Elsewhere, in a vignette that neatly 'rhymes', Cate Blanchett plays both herself and a socially embarrassing cousin from the wrong side of the tracks.

A hymn to the simple addictive pleasures of caffeine and nicotine, 'Coffee and Cigarettes' constantly delights, surprises and rewards.

*Having said that, 'Tape' pretty much achieves this. For the unintiated (oh, you lucky lucky people), 'Tape' is a film by Richard Linklater wherein Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard sit around in a motel room and blather interminably. It has a running time of less than 90 minutes and feels longer than Wagner's 'Ring' cycle - played twice.

1 comment:

Matt Fallon said...

Cinque and Joie Lee are not Spike Lee's children; rather, they are his younger brother and sister. Do your research.