By Afra Nariman
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, RZA, GZA, Joie Lee, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina, Cinqué Lee
There is no plot! An 11-vignette anthology film that focuses on the basic human activity of indulging in coffee and cigarettes and the random conversations that happen while doing so. With a wonderfully deep cast, who in some of the vignettes, play themselves, this anthology is full of improvisation, light comedy and simplicity.
Anthology films are generally difficult to review, because there isn’t an evolving plot, or a sense of character development, or anything like that. You have to look for something unique about the anthology. Some are made up of a few deep, full of life tales that feel like complete stories; and some, like this one, are made up of short, uneventful vignettes that’s value is grounded in discussion and purpose. Coffee and Cigarettes is unlike any anthology. The theme that ties each vignette together is in the title of the film. We’re presented with 11 short conversations taking place over a cup of coffee and a pack of smokes. On the surface, most of the vignettes don’t include enough meaningful content or conversation to be judged on their own. The value and brilliance of this anthology is found when you realize Jarmusch’s purpose for creating it. There are a couple of angles that you can take to make sense of Coffee and Cigarettes.
Sharing a few similarities with Jarmusch’s earlier classic anthology, Night On Earth (a review will come soon), this film is centered around the question of: What happens in the in-between, uneventful parts of our day? Let’s be honest, our days, as exciting as we may think our lives may be, are full of these lackluster moments of insignificance. We all take lunch breaks, or coffee breaks, or smoke breaks. Or maybe we just find ourselves sitting around reading a newspaper, maybe filling out the crossword of the day, or since its now 2020 when I’m writing this, and not 2003; we all find ourselves wasting away on our phones, wasting time with no specific task to complete, but just sitting there, scrolling, texting, surfing the web, etc… Films never capture these moments. As Jarmusch put it himself, we always see a movie character call for a taxi, and in the next scene, they’re paying the driver and exiting the cab… So, what’s happening in-between!? That question, he specifically answers in Night On Earth, which I will go further into in a later post. In Coffee and Cigarettes, we see the mediocre part of the day where we are in between activities and spend our free time smoking, drinking and attempting to socialize. It’s important to note as well; some of the conversations have very little noticeable substance to them, which brings me to the second angle you can take when watching this particular anthology.
In our lives, many of us have those people that we don’t really consider friends, but we still keep in touch with. Maybe its a co-worker, an old school friend, a classmate, a distant relative or maybe sometimes its even a random stranger we meet. In Coffee and Cigarettes, Jarmusch shows us how insignificant our casual relationships can be. We may think we are being social and being kept busy when we hang-out with these people, but in reality, the conversations we have with them can often times be as arbitrary as the activities that we decide to partake in with them: going to a bar for a drink, or in this case, grabbing a coffee and smoking some cigarettes. Regardless, we continue to do these things because they feel natural. And that’s what watching this film feels like: natural.
As far as the actual content of Coffee and Cigarettes, and the discussion topics that each vignette occupies, the complexity and objective interestingness of the conversations grow from vignette to vignette. The first few are extremely simple, with some light comedy sprinkled in, here and there. By the end of the film, you have seen a handful of interesting ones and a handful of hilarious ones. A few of the most notable vignettes are when Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet up and decide to have a smoke because they have each quit, when Jack and Meg discuss the inventions and discoveries of Nikola Tesla, when Alfred Molina approaches Steve Coogan and claims they’re biological cousins, and when Bill Murray suffers from “delirium” while drinking coffee and tea with RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. What’s most interesting about the vignettes is that in many of them, the esteemed actors and actresses actually play themselves, and in many cases, there is a level of improvisation in the talks they have with one another. For example, Bill Murray, RZA and GZA all play themselves, as do Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and each make for hilarious vignettes. Additionally, Cate Blanchett actually plays both herself and her fictional cousin; Tom Waits improvises his excuse to Iggy Pop as to why he’s late by claiming he is also a doctor and had to perform roadside surgery on his way over; and the master of improvisation and comedy, Roberto Benigni, improvises much of his opening scene where he is seen having coffee and cigarettes with another famous comedian.
Coffee and Cigarettes is full of rich characters, interestingly comedic conversations and a hint of societal critique. If I had to describe this anthology film in one word, I would choose: cool. It really is the pinnacle of cool. It’s comfortable to watch, many of the conversations are interesting, improvised or funny. It can also be relatable if you approach the film with everything I said above in mind. The cinematography is brilliantly epic. And… it’s in black & white, which makes it that much cooler. I personally love this movie, although it certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you’re patient, interested in Jarmusch’s exploration of what happens in the in-between moments of our day, a fan of Jarmusch’s films in general, enjoy anthologies or even if you just know the actors and actresses in the cast; pour yourself a cup of coffee and you’ll have a good time watching this film!