The short-film omnibus "Coffee and Cigarettes" is one of those projects that look as if they must have been a lot of fun to make. What's more, with its velvety black-and-white cinematography, cool, ironic tone and virtual summit meeting of of-the-moment scenesters (Bill Murray and RZA; Meg and Jack White; Tom Waits and Iggy Pop), it looks as if it ought to be a lot of fun to watch.
In fact, "Coffee and Cigarettes," which is the latest offering from the dependably risk-taking director Jim Jarmusch, isn't much fun at all, a fact attested to by the number of people leaving in the middle of a recent screening. Given the power of suggestion and the decadent on-screen enjoyment of the title characters, one would have thought those viewers were sneaking out for a quick espresso and a smoke. When they didn't come back, it was clear they had voted not with their pleasure centers but with their feet.
Jarmusch started the "Coffee and Cigarettes" project in 1986, when he directed a short film for "Saturday Night Live" starring the comedian Steven Wright and the Italian actor Roberto Benigni. The absurdist vignette -- during which Benigni shakily dispatches five espressos while he and the preternaturally deadpan Wright extol the virtues of caffeine and nicotine -- went on to be a hit on the festival circuit. Jarmusch made 10 more films over the next 17 years, all of which touched on similar themes: dreams, music, medicine, lunch, the inventor Nikola Tesla and, of course, the transgressive joys of coffee and cigarettes.
The skits that comprise "Coffee and Cigarettes" aren't fully realized short pieces as much as riffs or fragments; their appeal is mostly in their stars -- who form a kind of pantheon of alternative-art gods -- and in their lush, carefully composed visuals. ("Coffee and Cigarettes" was photographed by such redoubtable cinematographers as Ellen Kuras, Tom DiCillo, Robby Muller and Frederick Elmes.) Some of them are simple one-liners, and a few, like the film starring the Whites and one featuring the enigmatic beauty Renee French, go nowhere.
Nearly all are almost painfully self-conscious as the actors strain for the hip brand of improvised spontaneity that is usually guaranteed by a Jarmusch production. (The most disappointing installment in this regard stars Murray as a waiter in a cafe where RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan discuss alternative medicine.) One exception is the encounter between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop ("You can call me Jim"), which promises to be the rock-music version of the scene between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in "Heat." If the result doesn't soar that high, at least Waits has the comic timing to sell it with convincing authority.
Jarmusch fans will recognize a few members of the director's repertory company in "Coffee and Cigarettes," but it's two non-Jarmuschians who star in the film's funniest and best-conceived vignette. Called "Cousins?," it features the British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (star of last year's "24 Hour Party People") as themselves, meeting in a Los Angeles restaurant. Both actors are brilliant in this often excruciating examination of need, ambition and shifting motivations, and the payoff, unlike any other in the collection, arrives with a satisfying thwack to an offending party's ego. How ironic, yet somehow appropriate to Jarmusch's persistently independent sensibility, that the best part of "Coffee and Cigarettes" is the one that features two men drinking tea.
Coffee and Cigarettes (96 minutes, at Landmark E Street and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for language.