Sunday, February 26, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) **½

R, 95 min.
Director/Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, Bill Rice, Taylor Mead

Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” is a series of vignettes of famous people playing versions of themselves talking with each other about coffee and cigarettes and various other things. The vignettes are interesting, and the whole project could make for an interesting web series, but as a feature film it smells more of gimmick than artistic expression.

The best ones are the two featuring Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé in a scene and Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan in a scene. The two Frenchmen have a great conversation about misunderstanding. One thinks the other called him to meet because something is wrong. The other insists nothing is wrong. But much in the same way we never trust insistence. The man who was called to meet never believes that something isn’t wrong.

The Molina and Coogan scene is one that has become almost cliché for Coogan, where he plays himself as a put upon jerk who sees Molina’s attempts at friendship as encroaching on his personal space in the world. By the time he realizes he would like to be friends with Molina for professional reasons, he’s already made an ass of himself on a personal level. Coogan plays this character so well, he’s built his entire career around it. I can’t help but believe this is just an act he puts on, yet he seems to insist in every performance that this is how he really is.

There are many other interesting moments to be found in each of these little scenes. Bill Murray has an interesting encounter with some of the Wu Tang Clan. Jack White and Meg White have an interesting conversation about Nikola Tesla. There’s a funny moment in Iggy Pop’s and Tom Waits’ conversation where Waits claims to be a doctor on the side. This comes back in the Murray scene when Wu Tang member RZA makes a similar claim. But for the most part, most of these scenes play like exercises in acting and improvisation.

Also, Jarmusch does something with his camera that I can’t understand. In most of his wide shots, the people’s heads are cut out of the frame when they stand up. Jarmusch had been directing films long enough by 2003 that I doubt this was just some poor framing mistake, but I’m not sure what purpose it is supposed to serve beyond destroying any illusions of reality.

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