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Coffee and Cigarettes

In documenting the modern-day breakfast of champions, Jim Jarmusch brings to completion a work of dry wit and existential angst 17 years in the making with 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes. Beginning in 1986, Jarmusch would take actors from his current projects and otherwise, and have each work through a conversation centered around the player's obsession with the titular objects of delivery for the modern socially acceptable drugs of choice. The basic conceit, therefore, is fairly simple — just about any two people can be placed at a table, given a carafe of the black stuff and a pack of smokes, and discussion can ensue between even the most unlikeliest of pairings. As Iggy Pop and Tom Waits discuss in "Somewhere in California," cigarettes have replaced pie in the standard cinematic breakfast, harkening back to old Abbott and Costello films, in a statement about the modern prevalence of vice as an accepted mode of behavior, far removed from the noir background where such behavior used to be the norm. Coffee and Cigarettes' 12 vignettes flow from one to the next, seemingly unrelated save for some repetition in dialogue — cleverly tying together different cultures and generations with their opinions on various effects of caffeine. Where the film suffers is in its beginning. Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright kick things off with an uncomfortable discussion about Wright's trip to the dentist in "Strange to Meet You." Next, Buscemi discusses his theory on the death of Elvis in "Twins," as the titular siblings nervously stir their coffee and discuss their sense of style. Fortunately, it's at this point when things pick up speed. In the aforementioned piece featuring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, the incarnation of "self-mocking celebrity" makes its first appearance as the two discuss the lack of their music in the jukebox and Waits' lack of a good drummer. Kate Blanchett plays herself twice in "Cousins" as she deals with a needy, estranged family member. Jack and Meg White enjoy a cup of joe in "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil." Renee French provides the most startling turn in "   ," as Jarmusch revels in the inherent sex appeal of an attractive woman smoking on film. The camera dwells on her startling visage, surrounded by billows of smoke as she makes cat eyes at something off-frame. In the finest example of the self-deprecating nature of the vignettes, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan share tea (an acceptable substitute for the pair of Brits) as Molina attempts to convince Coogan of his discovery that they are distant cousins — what at first seems like a fame-grab one way cleverly reverses itself. Coffee and Cigarettes is fairly typical of concept films. There is no inherent point to the proceedings, save the simple joy of watching known quantities in a different light. As the actors play a comical version of themselves, the dialogue caters to the self-mocking nature of each of the participants. It's here that the enjoyment, or lack thereof, is centered. The existential nature of the screenplay, as well as the dry delivery of witty word-smithing inherent to Jarmusch's script, will delight fans of Waking Life, for example, but the fact that the camera doesn't do much other than dwell on the titular artifacts on various diner tables will find those who need a little more from their films in the action department. The playful nature of each vignette comes together as a whole, but while the whole is certainly entertaining, it feels meaningless in several places. Instead of an indictment, however, it's Jarmusch presenting his subject matter in the simplest fashion possible — the title characters are center stage for the entirety as the varied personalities shift from the nerve-wracked to the calm and collected, united by their love of caffeine and nicotine. MGM presents Coffee and Cigarettes in a good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Along with a trailer for this and other MGM offerings, a brief music video by BLAH called "Tabletops" highlights the design of each setting in a fast-paced clip of the various participants filling glasses and making use of ashtrays. A brief Bill Murray outtake from the "   " skit is included, removed perhaps for its overt Ghost Dog references (it would seem Jarmusch knows when he is being perhaps too self-referential), as well as a short interview with Taylor Mead as the old veteran discusses his experiences on the project. Keep-case.
—Scott Anderson

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