“Chinese Coffee” is a little acting exercise that only an actor would think to turn into a film. As the actor was Al Pacino, he could get it made, but this intimately conceived piece about two longtime bohemian friends coming to an impasse in middle age is strictly small-screen stuff, with meager theatrical potential other than what exists for Pacino’s name alone. This film will no doubt join “Two Bits” in its place among the least-seen pictures of the actor’s notable career.
Pacino first saw Ira Lewis’ play at the Actor’s Studio in 1983 (the year after the action is set) and appeared in a production at Circle in the Square in 1994. That he’s still preoccupied with it six years on is ample proof of its appeal and significance to the actor, who made his film directorial debut with the docu “Looking for Richard” four years back. The work does raise some interesting thematic questions, particularly in regard to how long an “artist” should pursue success until throwing in the towel and how available the experiences and secrets of one’s friends should be to a writer. But the entire enterprise is overacted, overwritten and overly elaborated for what it is, wearing out its welcome even before it approaches the heart of the matter.
Fired from his job as a doorman, the bedraggled looking Harry Levine (Pacino) heads down to Greenwich Village late one cold February night to visit his best friend, Jake Manheim (Jerry Orbach). Peeved to learn that Jake hasn’t yet read the manuscript of his new book, Harry quickly reveals himself to be neurotic, pushy and argumentative about everything, while Jake is the picture of calm acceptance, even though he, too, is essentially jobless, having abandoned 30 years of steady nightclub photography to pursue theatrical work, with little success.
Harry is a writer with two published books to his credit but, at 50-plus, he can hardly pretend that major recognition still lies ahead. As brief, layered flashbacks begin to show, his personal life has also been a disappointment, specifically his relationship with the presumed love of his life, aspiring artist Joanna (Susan Floyd), who left him after a lengthy involvement. By contrast, Jake cast off his wife, Mavis (Ellen McElduff), after many years, and now lives alone in the sparsely decorated apartment that reps the film’s main setting.
Nearly halfway through, after lengthy sparring about this and that, Jake reveals that he actually has read Harry’s new book and suggests that it may be time for his friend to try a new line of work. Later, Jake reveals the real reason he’s displeased: Harry lifted intimate details of Jake’s private life for his tome, things Jake regards as off-limits, a charge that forces Harry into a blunt assessment of his life’s work. By the time Harry takes his leave, the tables have completely turned, with Jake riled up and irrational and Harry exceptionally calm and clear-headed.
Unfortunately, the artistic availability and application of friendship is just about all “Chinese Coffee” is about, and the subject is built up to and danced around as much as it’s actually discussed. Furthermore, hardly any other aspects of the two main characters are discussed in the course of more than an hour-and-a-half, leaving the men very thinly developed for all the verbiage they dispense.
The central issue, of a meter running out on creative aspirations, is an interesting one to anyone remotely connected to the arts, and Lewis’ dialogue has a forceful bite at times. But it’s all belabored to diminishing returns, and neither in substance nor form does it add up to a properly fleshed-out picture.
Pacino and Orbach are, indisputably, two terrific actors who have clearly weighed every last wrinkle of their characters and the nuances of every line. All the same, in incessant closeup exposure they both become too much, with performances that might have been perfect onstage coming off as overly emphatic onscreen.
Direction and tech elements are routine and utterly at the service of the text and actors.