A Movie Under The Influence

Woo-pitch clan: GZA, RZA, and Bill Murray in 'Coffee and Cigarettes'
United Artists

Last week I had an argument with someone who thought Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man started slow. That movie had me from the second shot: Johnny Depp in a cheap striped suit and black bowler, nervously sitting on a train among plump East Coast businessmen. As the train heads west, the landscape and mostly mute company coarsens, appearing more primitive, almost as if the train were traveling back in time. Almost. Because the violence that finally erupts is understood as the engine for that "civilized" business back east. Depp plays an "average" citizen of that supposedly enlightened democracy dumped into the raw business of resource-grabbing that sustains it. All this in eight minutes of one character sitting and waiting. Plus it's beautiful-looking. Depp, too.

I mention this because Jarmusch's latest, Coffee and Cigarettes, depicts a lot of people sitting around, most of them waiting for something. At least half of the movie made me very aware that I, too, was sitting around waiting for something--something worth being communicated. If the point is to subvert the audience's expectations: hooray. Tedium is achieved often enough in Coffee and Cigarettes. (If the point is to flip the bird at health zealots, that goal is accomplished as well.)

The film's vignettes take place in various commercial establishments where coffee is served and smoking is (for the most part) allowed. The vignettes star one to three actors and/or musicians who are (for the most part) playing themselves. The dialogue is (for the most part) deliberately stagnant and unrevealing, with bright spots of colorful anecdote or tension. The latter seems to arise out of certain actors' charisma--or their willingness to make fun of their public personas. In any case, it helps if one is familiar with the actors, and helps more if one likes them. In other words, Coffee and Cigarettes on some level concerns the relationship between the audience and celebrity, though it's hard to summon the enthusiasm to try to figure out which level, how, and why.

The movie is full of uncomfortable conversations--between strangers, male friends who can't talk to one another, a crush-worthy customer and a crushed waiter, white people and black people. The skits that make the audience participate in the discomfort tend to be the most effective; the most painful involve very specific situations having, again, to do with fame. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan do a squirmy-funny bit (again, it's funnier if you know their work) in which first one and then the other tries to curry favor with a possibly more well-connected fellow English actor who's also scrambling to make it in L.A. Molina pretty much performs open-heart surgery on himself, but it's the cagey Coogan, in the end, who looks ridiculous.

The most torturous vignette (in a good way) involves Cate Blanchett playing both herself and a much less blessed cousin, the two meeting for coffee in a hotel bar during a publicity junket. The Blanchett character treats help and cousin alike with a practiced, regal kindness that makes your teeth ache (and hers, one feels); black-wigged, bad-girl cousin Shelby veers wildly between envious awe and mocking defensiveness. You can almost smell the humiliation. I couldn't help thinking, Celebrity--what a bizarre racket. It was good at that point to have been inspired to think anything at all.

Iggy Pop and Tom Waits act out what it feels like when big names get together because, y'know, famous people should get together. It's funnier than it deserves to be because Iggy's eyes are so haunted and impish, and because Waits does deadpan better than most anyone. Still, to me, the most enjoyable vignettes turn not on discomfort, but on ease: the comically creative play between odd threesome RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray; the long-time affection underlying the trivial talk between avant-garde film actors Bill Rice and Taylor Mead. In other words, disconnection only feels as real as its connections--which you'd think a film with this title would understand.

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