Who would have thought that a low budget film comprising a series of vignettes where a number of people share conversation over coffee (sometimes tea) and cigarettes, would make for one of the finest comedies of recent memory? Amazingly, Jarmusch’s film is exactly that – a laugh riot from start to finish, which was shot over a staggering seventeen-year period by the director as he evolved from being a fringe interest to a genuine off-mainstream name. Beginning with an enormously witty sketch in which Steven Wright meets with eccentric Italian actor/ director Roberto Benigni (originally filmed in 1986), Coffee and Cigarettes then moves through another ten choice encounters between conflicting personalities. Some are certainly weaker than others, with Steve Buscemi’s conversation with two disinterested twins about Elvis being the least compelling of the lot, but none of them are total duds.
Naturally, the comedy in the feature is largely verbal, and the very nature of the movie – monochrome and appearing to have been shot on a budget that makes even Clerks looks lavish – is going to stop a lot of potential viewers from venturing further. Even with the star names, Coffee and Cigarettes will likely remain something of a cult, even college, movie – which is a pity because there is a genuine art and beauty within some of the shorts contained herein. The final segment, between ageing labourers Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankolé, has a peculiar power – poetic even – whilst punk icon Iggy Pop’s awkward chat with Tom Waits is a work of Pinter influenced genius taking in everything from pancake restaurants to what’s on the juke box. Inherent in Jarmusch’s film is literate writing, highlighting the complexities of successful discourse and the awkward experience of trying to engage in conversation with a stranger. This is perhaps best influenced in the sequence where Renee French casually looks through a magazine focused on hand guns and hunting knifes, whilst a curious waiter attempts to woo her. French is spot on throughout – and although the short sketch has no beginning, middle or end – in fact it finishes just as soon as it seems to start – there is a curious mystery hidden in there that makes it imminently memorable.
However, Coffee and Cigarettes also stands tall due to a selection of encounters that are so perfectly realised that this writer is already considering going back for seconds. Jack and Meg White, two of contemporary music’s most exciting stars, discuss Nikola Tesla (honestly much, much funnier than it sounds) and Bill Murray meets two of the Wu-Tang Clan. Their consistent outbursts, while Murray appears to be rehearsing some kind of character role by being employed as a waiter, are nothing short of inspired. "You’re Bill Motherfucking Murray" – they shout as the erstwhile star of Lost in Translation tries to remain anonymous. "Hey – who you gonna call Bill Murray?" they add, spoofing the actor’s role in Ghostbursters. "It’s Bill Groundhog Day Murray". The two rap stars then have a brief, final discussion about tipping – "He don’t need no money, he’s Bill Murray". Excellent.
The best must be saved for last, of course, and Cate Blanchett’s dual role – playing herself and her layabout cousin – is a surprisingly mature piece of onscreen self-laceration that spoofs celebrity and the wealth that comes with it. As excellent as this vignette is, it cannot touch the film’s true highlight – as Steve Coogan meets bit part actor Alfred Molina, who is convinced that he is the actor’s cousin. Naturally suspicious and more than a little freaked out ("you’re not gay are you?" quips Coogan when Molina states "I just want you to love me"), the Twenty Four Hour Party People star finally ends up regretting his ambivalence towards the man when Molina receives a phone call from Spike Jonze. "Can I break that rule about not giving out my home phone number?" asks Coogan, pathetically.
In case you’ve not already guessed, this comes highly recommended. In the current climate of mindless summer blockbusters, Jarmusch is more refreshing than ever.