American Indie veteran Jim Jarmusch’s first film since 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is this series of minimalist vignettes. Each one involves variations of two or three people imbibing caffeine while smoking around a table in a public place. The intention is deadpan comedy but, as with all omnibus films of this type, the results vary wildly from scenario to scenario.
The opening episode is entitled “Strange to Meet You” and stars manic Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) and the typically poker-faced comedian Steven Wright discussing a visit to the dentist. It barely lasts five minutes, but that’s five minutes too long as the scene goes nowhere. In “Twins,” occasional Spike Lee collaborators and twin siblings Cinque and Joie Lee find themselves in a Memphis diner being waited upon by Steve Buscemi (Ghost World). Despite the twins’ objections, he prevails upon them with stories of Elvis Presley’s hypothetical evil twin brother, the fat Elvis. As talented as Buscemi is, an authentic Southern accent is out of his reach.
The best segment has Cate Blanchette playing both characters. Cate and Shelley, who are polar opposite cousins. Cate is a Meryl Streep-everywoman-type while Shelley is a punk goth wannabe doing a Lucy Lawless impression. They sit in the lounge of a ritzy hotel where Cate is engaging in a press junket for her latest film. She tries her best to accommodate Shelley whom she hasn’t seen in years, while Shelley calls attention to and then dismisses every Cate faux pas as passive-aggressively as possible. Blanchette is hilarious playing straight man to herself.
Also promising is “Somewhere in California” in which Iggy Pop (Snow Day) comes under the ultra-sensitive targeting scope of Tom Waits (Mystery Men). Waits analyzes and transforms each innocent comment Iggy makes into an unintended insult. In a very pleasant surprise, Iggy turns out to be quite the accomplished actor, though Waits is the old acting hand between the two musicians.
The only other segment of note, “Cousins?”, involves Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan meeting for tea. Coogan takes every opportunity to slight America, insulting its tea, the fashions, and Los Angeles. A seemingly unfazed Molina remains complimentary while his rude guest does his best to escape until he finally gets his comeuppance. The scene makes dexterous leaps across the expanse of human social interaction as cordiality meets head on with discomfort. Molina is particularly wonderful here.
The other sections include Joe Rigano (Analyze This) lecturing Vinny Vella (Casino) on smoking, E.J. Rodriguez as a waiter interrupting the magazine reading of beautiful Renee French, Isaach de Bankole trying to find out what’s wrong with his friend Alex Descas (Trouble Every Day), Meg White talking with Jack White (Cold Mountain) about his Tesla coil, GZA and RZA conversing with Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) about alternative medicine, and finally Taylor Mead and Bill Rice discussing Mahler while showing their highbrow/lowbrow biases.
The running theme through the different stories is competition between professional peers or relatives (whether immediate family or extremely distant cousins) amidst all attempts to maintain social graces. Jarmusch, an enormous music aficionado, sets each segment to music of a particular genre from reggae fused with jazz to classical chamber pieces to classic rock and funk. The vast majority of the actors have worked with Jarmusch before and Jarmusch tosses in little in-jokes like a picture of Lee Marvin on a wall (Jarmusch belongs to a gag club called “The Sons of Lee Marvin"). Alas, Coffee and Cigarettes has a student film quality in its conception and realization, though no student could ever rally the talent on display here. Most of the stories lack punchlines, just petering out instead.