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Coffee and Cigarettes, That Isn’t Too Healthy

January 4th, 2011 · No Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)
Directed by Jim Jarmsuch
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Joanna Vicente, Jason Kliot, Birgit Staudt (segments: Renée, No Problem, Somewhere In California), Demetra J. MacBride (segment: Somewhere In California), Rudd Simmons (segment: Twins), Jim Stark (segments: Strange To Meet You, Twins)
96 minutes

Like a dry erase board in a marketplace of digital product, Coffee and Cigarettes is borderline prosaic and yet somehow, completely enthralling. In 1986, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was contracted by Saturday Night Live to make a 5-minute short. Given two weeks, Jarmusch grabbed Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright while they were in New York, riffed off their contrasting personas in a rehearsal and shot the results the next day. Titled Coffee and Cigarettes, the avant-garde absurdity faded into late night TV, but Jarmusch enjoyed himself so much that after making Mystery Train in 1989, he shot another short, with Steve Buscemi and Cinqué Lee & Joie Lee. Jarmusch’s hobby filmmaking — pairing actors or musicians that amused him in rudimentary, black & white vignettes — continued in 1993 with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Two more shorts (Renée and No Problem) were made later that decade in New York.

After Jarmusch knocked out six shorts over a two-week span in 2002, he had enough material to fill a feature film. Screened at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, Coffee and Cigarettes opened in Italy in March 2004, followed by limited release in the U.S. courtesy United Artists in May 2004. Dry enough to start a brushfire, Jarmusch’s portmanteau film is not for everybody, with pregnant pauses and gentle tomfoolery sure to annoy as many viewers as it amuses. What Jarmusch offers between the cracks is reality programming for the arthouse, playfully mocking celebrity interviews or what passes for casual conversation in coffeehouses these days. The film’s biggest delights are vignettes taking residents of different star systems and seating them at the same table: Iggy Pop with Tom Waits, The GZA & RZA from Wu-Tang Clan with Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett with Cate Blanchett.

Over the course of 11 scenes, actors, musicians and actors playing characters get to know each other over breaks for coffee and cigarettes. Roberto Benigni comprehends so little of what Steven Wright says to him that he agrees to take the comedian’s dental appointment. Oil and water brother-sister twins (Cinqué Lee, Joie Lee) are harangued by the pet theories of an Elvis loving waiter (Steve Buscemi) in Memphis, while somewhere in California, Iggy Pop tries to keep polite conversation with Tom Waits at a tiki bar. Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella berate each other to quit drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while a silent Vinny Vella Jr. begs money off his old man. A young woman (Renee French) browsing firearms catalogs does her best to keep an over eager busboy (E.J. Rodriguez) away from refilling her coffee.

Continuing the dialogue or lack thereof, two friends (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé) meet for coffee and cigarettes, with the former trying to convince the latter that nothing is wrong. Taking a break in a hotel lobby from press interviews upstairs, Cate Blanchett tries to relate to her black sheep cousin Shelly (Cate Blanchett). Jack White demonstrates his “Tesla air transformer” to his “sister” Meg White, who offers mechanical advice when her bandmate’s doodad breaks down. In Los Angeles, Alfred Molina introduces himself to Steve Coogan over tea, presenting the comedian with some startling information he’s compiled. Back in New York, The GZA meets up with his cousin and fellow Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA at a diner, where they discover Bill Murray busing tables. Finally, William Rice and Taylor Mead share a toast.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 11,088 users: 75% for Coffee and Cigarettes

Metacritic “Metascore” average among 35 leading critics: 65 for Coffee and Cigarettes

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Tags: Brother/sister relationship · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Interrogation

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