Jim Jarmusch has again succeeded in his latest film, about two
of society’s favorite vices: caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine
popsicles, fast dreaming, and the theories of Nikolai Tesla recur
throughout the 11 black-and-white vignettes that make up Coffee and
Cigarettes, the latest from the indie-filmmaker. Through the common
conversational aid of coffee and cigarettes, the movie also
explores some of the uncomfortable moments that occur during
Jarmusch, who wrote and directed the movie, filmed three of the
segments more than ten years ago. The first section, subtitled
‘Strange to Meet You’, featuring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright,
was written in 1986 for Saturday Night Live. Benigni is literally
quaking from the amount of espresso he’s consumed, as evidenced by
the numerous empty cups strewn across the checkered table. Here,
Wright begins the recurring joke that he drinks coffee at night so
he can dream fast.
The second piece, ‘Twins’ was filmed in 1989 while Jarmush was
shooting Mystery Train. Steve Buscemi, Joie and Cinque Lee discuss
Elvis’s influence on rock and roll, and whether he stole his music
from blacks. A waiter, Buscemi is clearly annoying the two who are
trying to have a conversation about larger racial politics.
While many sections feature actors or musicians playing
themselves, they always play a satirical or exaggerated version of
themselves. Tom Waits, for example, is supposedly a doctor as well
as a musician. British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan also
play themselves, but not really, in the later segment
Waits and Iggy Pop discuss music, medicine, and smoking in the
third section, ‘Somewhere in California’, which was filmed in 1992
and won the 1993 Cannes Film Festival award for best short film.
This section is filled with hilarious moments, while creating an
incredible passive-aggressiveness which underlies the entire scene.
Waits gets defensive when Pop mentions a drummer he should check
out, and each criticizes the other for not being on the jukebox.
One of the best scenes is based on the two musicians as former
smokers. “The beauty of quitting,” Waits says, “is that you can
have one again.”
The White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White star in the
self-explanatory ‘Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil’. Fascinated by
Nikolai Tesla’s theory of Earth as a conductor of acoustical
resonance, Jack also builds a replica of the Tesla coil and takes
it around in a little red wagon. For most of the piece, all I could
look at was the creepy picture of Lee Marvin hanging on the back
With two of the sections filmed in one day in the late ’90s and
the remaining six shot in 2003, Jarmusch masterfully carries his
focus throughout and other than the youthful appearances of
Benigni, Waits, and Pop, it is difficult to tell that a good chunk
of this movie is more than a decade old.
Bill Murray, and GZA and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, makeup the cast of
one of the last and funniest segments, ‘Delirium’. While the two
rappers espouse their nicotine- and caffeine-free lives, Murray,
“Bill, Groundhog Day, ghostbustin-ass Murray” as he’s called, plays
a waiter with a vicious smoker’s hack, guzzling coffee from the
pot. Both rappers’ habit of ending their statements with Murray’s
name is endlessly amusing, and the joke of drinking coffee to dream
fast is again picked up in this short.
Every short carries the black (coffee) and white (cigarettes)
theme in the set design, from checkered tables in almost every
section, to the dramatic black-and-white furnishings in ‘Cousins’
with Cate Blanchett playing herself and her cousin Shelly. The two
have obviously not seen one another in a while, and Blanchett
struggles to remember the name of Shelly’s boyfriend: “How’s
Johnny? Uh, Jjjimmy?…Tttommy?” “It’s Lee,” Shelly replies,
annoyed. Blanchett is another hamming up a pseudo-version of
The film continues Jarmusch’s tradition of working with friends
like Waits and Benigni. A large portion of the cast has worked with
Jarmusch before, either on camera in films like Dead Man, Down by
Law, Mystery Train, or Night on Earth or on the soundtrack, as with
RZA who scored Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
With a soundtrack featuring Waits, the Skatalites, Funkadelic,
and the Stooges among others, Coffee and Cigarettes opens May 14 in
theaters. The film is not yet rated.