I’m not one to think that the weirder the better, nor that when the explosions cease, the point of the film disappears. I find both sides stupidly extreme, and equally laughable. I am, however, one to believe that the more the money that is put in a project, the more the cheating on behalf of the filmmaker, and I have indeed found that the most beautiful of stories needed very little to be effectively told. Having said this, the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is a peculiar one, as this funky gem is brilliant, but not for the reasons often stressed – at least not as far as I’m concerned.
The story, as simple and fuss-free as Jarmusch would only have it, revolves around eleven seemingly ordinary famous encounters. Actors and musicians we’d always like to see interact, are placed in front of us — talking, swearing, joking, arguing — while satisfying their addiction to coffee and cigarettes. Except of course in the case of the wonderful Brits, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, who engage in the most awkwardly amusing conversation over – what else? — tea and shortbread. All the combinations are a delight to watch, but this one is so well-acted, so meaningfully comedic and clever, that it automatically and without wanting to, stands above the rest effortlessly.
In 2003, when Coffee and Cigarettes was playing at the theatres, I was presented with a rough picture of it by a friend. She said “if there’s one thing I can do for you, I’ll save you the two hours you would watch random people talk about nothing. Nothing happens in this film, there’s absolutely no point in watching it”. In retrospect, I’m glad she didn’t try to “save” me from other films and shows where “nothing happens” such as Carnage, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, or even worse, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Seinfeld. I wasn’t “saved”, so I went to see one of the most enjoyable, intelligent and visually nostalgic films I have ever had the pleasure of watching.
At the same time, I do still catch myself getting irritated by the amount of deeper meanings and wishful layers attached to Jarmusch’s film(s) by the many desperate hipsters. Sometimes – and I do feel that this is the case with Coffee and Cigarettes — a film is to be enjoyed for its simplicity, its subtly absurd sense of humour, its realism wrapping a colourfully mad assortment of characters, as well as the lack of need to explain an inexplicable and perhaps one-dimensional joke. It’s misleading to claim that nothing happens here, because a lot happens; colourful and bizarre legends interact. But it’s also misleading to claim that too much happens or that even more is suggested. No, it’s still just some colourful and bizarre characters who we know well and who get to interact. Nothing more, nothing less.
What makes it a must-see is the originality of Jarmusch’s dialogue, the naturalistic and humorous acting and of course the director’s brilliant black-and-white camera, working its way around and above the characters, closing up on the ashtrays and offering us a free refill every chance it gets. The walls, the jukebox, the wooden chairs, the magazine and shoes on the table; the leisurely pace and laidback atmosphere; and a stillness that may not be for everyone, but that does, after all, imitate life splendidly.
And even if Jarmusch had gone all out with Coffee and Cigarettes and used his usual hand-picked collection of unknown, everyday people, rather than famous actors and musicians, still plenty would be happening. The stardom mockery we’re enjoying here is of course too amusing to have missed out on, but such a project would have gone even further in demonstrating how “nothing happens” could never stand when describing a film like this. “Nothing happening” can be beautiful and can be done humorously, economically, elegantly, artistically and engagingly by anyone with wit and passion –even if he’s not acquainted with all the right people.
You can watch the entire movie (with Spanish subtitles) here:
Coffee and Cigarettes at IMDb
Coffee and Cigarettes at Wikipedia
Coffee and Cigarettes (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb