Halfway through the first of the 11 vignettes that compose Coffee and Cigarettes, I found myself with the slightest twinge of a coffee craving. And I hate coffee. In the segment, called "Weird To Meet You," deadpan comic Steven Wright sits at a little table with a jittery, frenetic Roberto Benigni. Shot in black and white and tightly, statically framed, the scene consists of little more than chitchat. Wright riffs on how he likes to drink coffee right before bed.
While, Benigni shakily tips one demitasse of espresso after another towards his pursed lips. Until Wright complains about a dentist appointment and Benigni, mystifyingly excited, offers to go to the dentist for him. He departs suddenly, leaving Wright looking utterly bewildered.
Weird, eh? It's right up Jim Jarmusch's alley. Like his previous movies (Night on Earth, Mystery Train, etc.), Coffee and Cigarettes is underscored by a heavily subdued sense of absurdity and stocked with characters that are just to one side of normal. The acting and dialogue are often intentionally flat, and there's not a punch line to be found anywhere. The film is, simply, a series of conversations over cigarettes and coffee (and sometimes tea). There's no over-arching plot and only one or two linking motifs. There's no climax, no denouement. It's languid and listless.
In "Somewhere in California," Iggy Pop and Tom Waits smoke and take offense at each other's innocent questions. In "Delirium," the Wu Tang Clan's GZA and RZA talk nicotine with Bill Murray, who is, inexplicably, undercover as a waiter. In the best of the vignettes -- "Cousins?" -- Alfred Molina sips tea with fellow Brit actor Steve Coogan, who heartlessly deflects all of the praise and friendly overtures offered by his compatriot (who is heartbreakingly sincere) until he learns that Molina knows director Spike Jonze. Coogan shifts quickly into obsequiousness, but Molina, burnt and rejected, just slumps away.
What just happened? Nothing, really. An exchange. A few terse but flaccid emotional parries, performed just below the level of consciousness. And yet an hour and a half later, you're left with a hunger for more along with a serious nicotine jones. How did that happen?