2-1/2 stars (out of 4)
The opening credits of Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes" read like a who's who of cool: Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, the White Stripes' Meg White and Jack White, the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, Bill Murray and other names you'd proudly drop in an arty coffeehouse.
The New York-based Jarmusch, whose droll "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984) helped launch the current American indie-film movement, is a member of the cool club as well. He's maintained his indie cred, in part, by never making overtures to a wider audience.
His films tend to be deadpan, elliptical, insular. As you watch the various actors and musicians sipping, smoking and chatting in "Coffee and Cigarettes," you may feel like you're part of an intimate, hipster in-crowd--or you may tire of the whole scene. These reactions are not mutually exclusive.
"Coffee and Cigarettes" is a series of 11 short black-and-white films in which performers, playing versions of themselves, meet over java and smokes. The first, featuring Wright and Roberto Benigni (who was introduced to American audiences in Jarmusch's "Down By Law"), was shot in 1986 for "Saturday Night Live." It's one of the jokier entries, with Wright droning his typically absurd observations (he drinks coffee before bedtime so his dreams pass faster) while Benigni offers a hyper version of amenable.
Far worse is the 1989 short "Twins," in which Joie and Cinque Lee tolerate the racially stupid banter of their hick waiter, played by Steve Buscemi, before the whole thing degenerates into an obvious argument about Elvis Presley's debt to black musicians. But then 1992's "Somewhere in California," which won the Cannes Film Festival's short-film Palme D'Or, offers the delicious spectacle of Iggy Pop and Tom Waits meeting in some remote dumpy bar, with Iggy playing the shaggy, eager-to-please puppy while the edgy Waits finds ways to take constant umbrage.
This short is funny because of the way it twists the singers' distinct personae, a trick Jarmusch repeats a few times over the remaining segments, most of which were filmed early last year. We get Cate Blanchett the gleaming movie star facing off against her resentful dark-haired cousin Shelly, also played by Blanchett (a la Serena to Samantha on "Bewitched"), and Alfred Molina drawn into an ego-wrestling match with on-the-rise actor Steve Coogan (of "24 Hour Party People").
That these three segments are the best-written and best-acted of the bunch points out the strengths and limitations of "Coffee and Cigarettes." Jarmusch is a sharp observer of celebrity culture; what makes the Blanchett short so biting is how everything movie-star Cate does to appear gracious just feeds Shelly's bitterness.
Molina's exchange with the brilliantly insufferable Coogan also is a prime example of Hollywood power-playing, though its punch line is rather obvious. When you get right down to it, so is the enterprise of skewering the superficiality and venality of stars. Murray's encounter with the Wu-Tang guys, meanwhile, amounts to a fun throwaway gag hinging on the incongruity of their meeting.
Away from the subject of showbiz, too many of the shorts meander with little payoff. "Those Things'll Kill Ya" and "Renee," for instance, offer one good joke each and a lot of air.
Jarmusch, who wrote the entire film, has cut most of the segments from similar cloth. Some of the repetitiveness is intentional, such as the restating of Nikola Tesla's mind-tickling theory that "the Earth is a conductor of acoustical resonance." Other times the movie just spins its wheels.
The filmmaker brings such smarts to the table that you can't dismiss him, but despite the caffeine-and-nicotine link, the shorts accumulate little in the way of dramatic or thematic momentum. The draggy ones make you restless while the best ones, like the movie's title ingredients, provide a buzz that doesn't last long enough.
"Coffee and Cigarettes"
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; photographed by Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Muller, Tom DiCillo; edited by Jay Rabinowitz, Melody London, Terry Katz, Jarmusch; production designed by Mark Friedberg, Tom Jarmusch, Dan Bishop; produced by Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot. A United Artists release; opens Friday, May 28. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: R (language).
Roberto - Roberto Benigni
Steven - Steven Wright
Joie - Joie Lee
Cinque - Cinque Lee
Waiter - Steve Buscemi
Iggy - Iggy Pop
Tom - Tom Waits