When you’re cool you’re cool, and “Coffee and Cigarettes” is certified. N.Y. indie wizard Jim Jarmusch entertains believers in eleven laid-back episodes featuring actors and musicians who are a virtual compendium of his past casts. Holding the film together are simple but strong B&W visuals of offbeat types sitting around a table smoking and drinking java while they talk. The format is not as easy to watch as a feature film, and the wry humor won’t be to everyone’s taste, making it probable Jarmusch fans will make up the core of viewers. Most successful are the mini-comedies with a loose punchline, while others barely qualify as character sketches. Three pieces shot in 1986, 1989 and 1993 have been previously released as short films.
Film opens well with the 1986 short “Coffee and Cigarettes I.” A youthful, wound-up Roberto Benigni chats up a stranger (Steven Wright) and volunteers to go to his dentist appointment for him. His pidgin English and excruciating politeness are all the gag needs to work.
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It’s followed by “Coffee and Cigarettes II: Memphis Version,” here titled simply “Twins.” Steve Buscemi is a hick waiter whose jabbering about Elvis’ twin brother makes city hipsters Cinque and Joie Lee lose their cool.
The third short, “Coffee and Cigarettes III: Somewhere in California,” won Jarmusch a Palme d’Or for Short Film at Cannes in 1993. Sitting in a bar, musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop talk about not smoking while they smoke and worry about whether they have a song in the jukebox.
The remaining sketches are a mixed bag of new material shot with the idea of making a feature film. The best ones feature professional actors, and are also more elaborate as stories. Other sketches, relying simply on weird characters, are limp. The repetition of a few concepts — like alternative medicine or the idea that coffee accelerates dreams — provides a mysterious link between unrelated characters in different episodes.
Cate Blanchett plays both a hyper-defensive celebrity and her luckless, bitterly envious relative who has made an appointment to see her in a hotel room. The poor cousin, who plays in a rock band no one has heard of, is quite funny.
In another uncomfortable meeting — arguably the film’s high point — actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan play themselves. Molina gushes with enthusiasm over a common ancestor he has supposedly found, while the cool but polite Coogan (from the Brit TV series “I’m Alan Partridge”) tries to squirm out of a meeting that’s turning into a nightmare. His snobbishness backfires humiliatingly.
In another self-spoof, a madcap Bill Murray sails through as a paranoid celeb in disguise, begging deadpan rap stars Rza and Gza of Wu Tang Clan not to give his secret away.
Stage actor Taylor Mead and indie film thesp Bill Rice cap an abstract finale looking like they stepped out of a Samuel Beckett play in which they optimistically celebrate life even while being out of touch with the world. It’s a paradox that neatly sums up the Jarmusch mystique.
Giving the film a grungy-hip look is matching B&W lensing by a collection of top cinematographers: Frederick Elmes, Robby Muller, Ellen Kuras and Tom DiCillo. Background music is kept low.