'Coffee': A Surreal Rush
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page WE45
LIKE THE AROMA of strong, black coffee mingling with the smoke from burning tobacco, the sublime and the ridiculous are virtually inseparable in Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes." The resultant mixture, producing a kind of sharp, heady dissonance, will act either as an irritant or a stimulant, depending on your stomach for that sort of thing.
Myself, I loved it -- as much for the self-conscious banality and surreal pointlessness of its dialogue, which unravels over the course of 11 more or less unrelated vignettes, as for its austerely retro black-and-white photography, courtesy of a quartet of talented cinematographers, namely Robby Muller, Tom DiCillo, Ellen Kuras and Frederick Elmes. As for Jarmusch's thematic exploration of duality -- along with the titular pairing of caffeine and nicotine, this is a film in which twins, cousins and siblings figure prominently -- I'm not entirely sure that works, or that it even matters.
After all, making sense of things has hardly ever been a prerequisite of taking pleasure in a Jarmusch film. Since "Stranger Than Paradise," much of his work has taken advantage of a narrative structure that is more meandering than systematic.
"Coffee and Cigarettes" is no exception. Opening with a hilarious conversation in a restaurant between two overcaffeinated individuals named Roberto (Roberto Benigni) and Steven (Steven Wright), the latter of whom talks the former into taking his place at the dentist, the film goes nowhere fast, stopping along the way to introduce a redneck waiter played by Steve Buscemi, the movie star Cate Blanchett, playing both herself and her own loser cousin Shelly, and Bill Murray as, well, Bill Murray -- assuming you can imagine that the Oscar-nominated actor might actually moonlight as an employee of a greasy spoon, where he drinks coffee straight from the pot and, at the urging of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, gargles with oven cleaner.
And no, none of that is a typo.
The universe of "Coffee and Cigarettes," you see, is sort of parallel, but not quite, to the one we inhabit. While Buscemi is not meant to be taken as Buscemi -- just a Memphis hick who wonders which of two twins (played by real-life twins Joie and Cinque Lee) is the evil one and which one the good -- certain other actors play apparently straight versions of themselves. In addition to Blanchett's conversation with her own cousin, the famous movie star's raven-haired "opposite," actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, essentially playing themselves, discuss whether they, too, might be related in a chat that is as wickedly amusing for its awkwardness as for its plausibility. Musicians Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, on the other hand, reveal that one of them is actually trained as a doctor. And rockers Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes unmask their own bizarre expertise in the construction and maintenance of Tesla coils.
"Coffee and Cigarettes," then, is a movie about two realities: the one we know and another shadow realm that looks like a documentary but feels like a dream. In that sense, Jarmusch's use of yin/yang, dark/light and good/evil symbolism makes glorious if goofy sense.
Filmed over the course of many years (starting with the Benigni-Wright episode, which first aired as a short film on "Saturday Night Live" in 1986, and ending with several vignettes filmed early last year), "Coffee and Cigarettes" has a stylistic wholeness, even if its thesis feels sometimes less than solid. United by the archaic look of film noir and an overarching love-hate relationship with the blackness of coffee and the whiteness of cigarettes, the movie is, at least formally, beautiful. Like a Japanese rock garden, it is an arrangement of things at once random and unified.
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (R, 96 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and brief discussion of drug use. In English and some unsubtitled French. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The seemingly random meets the sublime in "Coffee and Cigarettes," starring GZA, left, RZA and Bill Murray.