It’s kinda like improvisational jazz, a riffing on the downbeats of movies, this collection of short films by Jim Jarmusch. And like jazz — sez me, who’s not a big fan of most of the form — it’s not always successful, sometimes flowing smooth and funky and sometimes just clunking noise falling over itself. But when it’s good in Coffee and Cigarettes, it’s really, really good.
Is this the longest production schedule ever in the history of film? Not that it started out as a feature, of course, but the short Coffee opens with was shot in 1986, when Saturday Night Live — then still interesting and relevant — asked Jarmusch for a contribution. He gave them “Strange to Meet You,” a bit of oddball nonsense in which comedian Steven Wright (Babe: Pig in the City) and actor/director Roberto Benigni (Pinocchio) meet in a coffeeshop and the two of them, neither much in need of the boost of either caffeine or nicotine, consume mass quantities of both and fidget and jitter their way through the weirdest of conversations. It’s classic Wright, which is good, and classic Benigni, which isn’t so good, but for the duration of a short film, it’s more than tolerable.
Jarmusch shot a coupla more of these in 1989 and 1992, with the balance thrown together over a few weeks last year, and though they’re carefully scripted by Jarmusch and the intriguing cast are not playing themselves (though this often seems to be the case), there is a refreshing rough-and-tumble energy to the films, even the ones that don’t fully gel. Everyone’s having smart, creative fun, the actors confident enough to poke some fun at themselves and Jarmusch exploring the negative spaces of other stories. Like in “Renée,” in which a woman (Renée French) sitting alone in a cafe is constantly pestered by the waiter (E.J. Rodriguez), who wants to refill her coffee or bring her something to eat. She’s a bit tarted up, with her big hair and overdone makeup, and she’s clearly waiting for someone — it’s easy to imagine that maybe it’s her mobster boyfriend, off doing something felonious in some other more exciting movie, who’s late again. Or in “No Problem,” in which two old friends (Isaach de Bankolé and Alex Descas) meet after many years but can’t get past an unspoken worry that might be plaguing one of them — their entire conversation is along the lines of “So, what’s the matter?” “Nothing.” “I can see that it isn’t.” “No, everything’s fine, really.”
The best pieces, though, are just downright delicious. Musicians Tom Waits (Mystery Men) and Iggy Pop just about steal the movie in “Somewhere in California,” in which the two discuss, well, coffee and cigarettes and Waits reveals some surprising hobbies and Pop manages to thoroughly insult Waits, completely unintentionally and thoroughly hilariously. Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) is a close runner-up in “Cousins,” a mini tour de force for her astonishing talent and an ode to her incredible range. In this one-woman, two-character soap opera that’s both funny and poignant, she portrays both glamorous movie star Cate and her slouchy, punky cousin Shelly, the latter of whom can barely contain her contempt for the former… not that Shelly’s not above taking advantage of Cate’s fame and wealth. And then there’s the sort-of follow-up, “Cousins?” Actor Alfred (Alfred Molina: Identity) invites actor Steve (Steve Coogan: Ella Enchanted) to tea in Los Angeles, and though they’ve never met before, the latter can barely contain his totally unjustified contempt for the former. But Steve will get his comeuppance, and it will be perfect.
There’s more — pieces with Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), with Steve Buscemi (Big Fish), with bizarro twins Jack (Cold Mountain) and Meg White — all just people talking about weird things — Tesla coils, Elvis conspiracy theories — over coffee and cigarettes. Sometimes it’s profound, sometimes it’s silly, but it’s always entertaining.