[Screen It]

(2004) (Bill Murray, Alfred Molina) (R)

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Drama: Various characters sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while making small talk or dealing with the immediate issues in their lives.
In a series of eleven mostly independent vignettes, various characters sit around, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking about that and other issues in their lives. Roberto (ROBERTO BENIGNI) and Steven (STEVEN WRIGHT) lead off, while a waiter (STEVE BUSCEMI) tries to figure out which of two twins (JOIE LEE and CINQUÉ LEE) is the evil one, while chatting about Elvis and his.

Iggy (IGGY POP) and Tom (TOM WAITS) meet and justify smoking since they've previously quit, while wise-guy Joe (JOE RIGANO) gets on Vinny's (VINNY VELLA) case for smoking and observing the latter's son, Vinny Jr. (VINNY VELLA JR.), who doesn't speak. Renée (RENÉE FRENCH) must deal with a pesky waiter (E.J. RODRIGUEZ) who's determined to fill and thus ruin her perfect cup of coffee, while longtime friends Alex (ALEX DESCAS) and Isaach (ISAACH DE BANKOLÉ) meet and discuss whether anything's wrong.

Movie star Cate (CATE BLANCHETT) takes a break from a press junket to meet her less sophisticated and somewhat envious cousin, Shelly (CATE BLANCHETT), while Jack (JACK WHITE) wants to show Meg (MEG WHITE) an invention he's created.

Alfred (ALFRED MOLINA) wants to tell fellow actor Steve (STEVE COOGAN) that they're related, while GZA (GZA) and RZA (RZA) get on Bill Murray's (BILL MURRAY) case for drinking and smoking. Finally, Bill (BILL RICE) and Taylor (TAYLOR MEAD) shoot the breeze while on a break from work.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Few will argue the nutritional value -- or lack thereof -- of the products most commonly associated with the properties known as caffeine and nicotine. Yet, despite the dire health consequences related to inhaling the latter, many people still partake in drinking coffee and puffing on cigarettes. Simple yet highly addictive, the two are designed to "entertain" the user's visceral senses.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that a film that showcases the effects of both can be described in similar terms to the combined behavior it portrays. While we think we should know better, "Coffee and Cigarettes" turns out to be fitfully entertaining in the moment, instantly forgettable and essentially 90 some minutes of cinema that amounts to nothing.

Comprised of 11 barely connected and short vignettes featuring a host of actors and actresses playing themselves or close facsimiles thereof, and who partake in or discuss the good and bad points of the title subject, the film certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, in my many years of watching movies -- both casually and professionally -- I've never seen so many people walk out of a screening as occurred in our advance one for this film.

Some may have been put off by the picture being in black and white (although it looks glorious). Others might have found it too slow or uneven. And the rest probably had the same stunned and/or incredulous reaction as the fictitious NBC executives in that old "Seinfeld" episode where Jerry and George propose that the sitcom they're pitching will be about nothing.

Of course, that was the beauty of that episode and the entire series in that the writers and performers essentially took next to nothing -- in terms of story depth or material -- and turned it into comedic gold. While there are some funny moments scattered throughout this production, the effort can best be described as "Seinfeld Lite" as if played by eleven different sets of casts.

To be fair, writer/director Jim Jarmusch ("Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Stranger Than Paradise") didn't initially set out to make a full-length film. Way back in 1986, he was asked to produce a short film for "Saturday Night Live." The result was the first segment of this film that features Robert Benigni ("Pinocchio," "Life is Beautiful") and Steven Wright ("The Muse," "Desperately Seeking Susan") experiencing the jittery aftereffects of too much coffee.

Three years later, the second installment featuring Joie Lee ("Mo' Better Blues," "Do the Right Thing"), Cinqué Lee ("Mystery Train," "Window on Your Present") and Steve Buscemi ("Big Fish," "Reservoir Dogs") was shot, followed another three years later by the one where pop icons Iggy Pop ("Sid and Nancy," "The Color of Money") and Tom Waits ("Ironweed," "Short Cuts") come together to share some smokes, java and small talk. The rest of the vignettes followed in the intervening years.

Some are rather entertaining, such as the one featuring Alfred Molina ("Spider-Man 2," "Frida") being too enthusiastic toward fellow actor Steve Coogan ("Around the World in 80 Days," "24 Hour Party People") about them being distant relatives. Then there's another where Wu-Tan Clang members RZA and GZA (making their feature debut) discuss the effects of caffeine with Bill Murray ("Lost in Translation," "Groundhog Day") who's playing himself and apparently hiding in the guise of a waiter who drinks Joe straight from the pot.

The one where Cate Blanchett ("The Missing," "Veronica Guerin") plays cousins -- one a famous actress, the other her envious and less successful relative -- is interesting but lacks any decent payoff. One also expects that in another segment featuring Jack White ("Cold Mountain") showing Meg White (making her debut) his Tesla coil (named after the electrical engineer and inventor), but it similarly peters out. Others feature even more mundane plots and performers that few viewers will recognize, possibly leading to those mass exodus moments.

I, of course, had to sit through all of them, although that's not meant to imply that any of them were painful or too boring to endure. Yet, I kept waiting for some sort of overall payoff that never arrived. Sure, some comments ended up getting repeated from earlier segments by those in later ones, and there's at least one brief character overlap.

Even so, and despite the common theme of the title subject, similar establishing shots (along with the black and white motif), and the fact that they all pretty much talk about nothing, the film never builds into anything greater than any individual segment.

Amusing at times and occasionally hip in a retro fashion, but boring, disjointed and/or flat at others, this is the definition of an experimental art house flick that -- for good or bad -- simply won't play that well with most mainstream viewers. There's nothing wrong with that. Yet, knowing next to nothing going in about the film or the way it was shot, I kept wanting and expecting more from it. Unfortunately, it never really delivers, at least consistently. "Coffee and Cigarettes" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 12, 2004 / Posted May 21, 2004

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