Jim Jarmusch has always been too cool for school, which is not necessarily a bad trait in an American indie director. When his minimalist aesthetic meets a suitably minimalist theme—as in his breakthrough, Stranger Than Paradise (1983)—or offers a stark new way of portraying an old world—as in his brilliant counterculture Western, Dead Man (1995)—then that anesthetized manner can seem soulful, a back-door kind of humanism. The problem is when Jarmusch is too cool for drama. His Coffee and Cigarettes (United Artists) is meant as a return to his purposely amateurish ‘70s East Village roots, and it pretty much sums up why he remains such a marginal figure. Despite glimmers of wit and a hipper-than-thou cast, it’s painstakingly smug, and smaller than the sum of its parts.
The movie consists of 11 scenes, in sundry cafes, bars, and lounges, many of them with incongruous pairings, over cups (or pots) of coffee and smokes. A fun idea, in prospect: Watch these brilliant people—celebrities, semicelebrities, oddball characters—interact, their discourse fueled (or warped) by caffeine and nicotine. But Jarmusch’s intent, it turns out, is not to show these people connecting in unpredictable ways but failing to connect in obvious ones. The movie is a manifesto for the dull-witted: It makes you feel a little less alive.
Take the first scene, which was shot 17 years ago as a short film for Saturday Night Live. It features Steven Wright meeting Roberto Benigni for coffee and cigarettes. Benigni’s motor runs absurdly (I’d say, insufferably) fast, while Wright has made a style of talking (and thinking) in pothead-slow motion. Each is locked into his respective rhythm—and shtick. Can they ever get on the same wavelength, even for a millisecond? The answer is no: They each inhabit a different space-time continuum. Sounds like a cute idea, right? Maybe, but the dialogue is banal, rhythmless, unfunny. And then it ends.
It’s a toss-up which is the worst sketch in Coffee and Cigarettes: the nondialogue between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, or the one-joke encounter of Jack and Meg White. Maybe the latter: Jack talks about Nikola Tesla; says, “The Earth is a conductor of acoustical * resonance”; and demonstrates a Tesla coil (which is cool). Then the machine sputters out and Meg—to Jack’s surprise—shows a keen and preposterous understanding of electrical engineering. He leaves. She smokes. The end. Iggy and Waits make tentative attempts to converse, but Waits seems peculiarly passive-aggressive, and Iggy finally points out that none of Waits’ songs are on the bar’s jukebox. Iggy leaves. Waits discovers that none of Iggy’s songs are on the bar’s jukebox, either. The end. The height of Jarmusch’s perversity is a meeting between Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé, one of whom thinks the other wants to tell him that something’s wrong while the other assures him—in between long, long pauses—that no, there’s nothing wrong, nothing at all. Jarmusch doesn’t move the camera much, so the scene’s 10 minutes feel like an hour.
I fear I’m making Coffee and Cigarettes sound livelier than it is: You have to experience all this in real time to appreciate how enervating Jarmusch can be—or how desperate he can make you to want to laugh at something to salvage the scene for him. That’s the only reason I can think of that critics are praising the bit with Wu Tang Clan members GZA, RZA, and Bill Murray—the latter of whom shows up as a caffeine-addled waiter who begs not to be identified. (“You can trust us, Bill Murray.”)
The only two scenes that work have something like a bourgeois structure, plus great acting. Cate Blanchett plays herself—a movie-star in mid-junket—and a simmeringly resentful vagabond cousin (with black hair and bangs) who at various times resembles Julie Christie and Judy Davis. Blanchett’s transformation into the bitter cousin is marvelous, but it’s as “Cate” that she really dazzles: You watch her trying to figure out what to say, and finally realize that the rich and famous can never really console the poor and unnoticed. The special effects—both Blanchetts are on screen almost the whole time—are seamless, too. Equally memorable is a long scene between the English actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, the latter a hot property following his success in 24 Hour Party People (2002). What anchors the dialogue is Molina’s expansiveness—his jabbering, heartfelt sincerity as he reaches out to an English cousin who demonstrates (through perfectly calibrated nonresponses) no interest whatsoever in forming a bond.
Coffee and Cigarettes ends with a sort of Beckettian exchange between two artists, Bill Rice and Taylor Mead, who—in the course of their wandering, disconnected discussion—recall the New York in the ‘70s as an artistic renaissance on par with Paris in the ‘20s. It must have been fun—low rents, lots of drugs, punks willing to abuse themselves in the name of art—but Jarmusch’s tribute is the best evidence imaginable that it left us with little of lasting value.
Correction, May 24, 2004: An earlier version of this piece quoted a character saying, “The Earth is a conductor of ecological resonance”; the character said “acoustical resonance.” ( Return to corrected sentence.)