Monday, December 17, 2012

Anthology Breakdown: Coffee and Cigarettes

Anthology Breakdown is a column I’ve neglected over the past few months, but am brining back full swing. The exercise is simple: view an anthology film and grade each segment individually. Hope you enjoy!

The title of Jim Jarmusch’s excellent anthology film pretty much sums it up: this is a movie about (mostly famous) people playing hyperbolic versions of themselves, sitting around and bullshitting as they drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Their conversations vary from health, fame, anxieties, and the latent racism of Elvis Presley. Like most anthologies, Coffee and Cigarettes is not without its share of lacking segments. Check out which ones I dig most below, and, as always, be sure to tell me your favorites in the comments!

Strange to Meet You
The original Coffee and Cigarettes short, filmed in 1986, Strange to Meet You begins with Roberto Benigni sitting in a European-looking café, pounding espresso to the point of convulsion. After a few moments, Steven Wright approaches the table, introduces himself, and sits down. The two, who appear to know each other but not really, engage in limited conversation, before Wright exits the café. If nothing else, Strange to Meet You is an amusing exercise in awkwardness, but not nearly as memorable as other segments in the film. B

Twins is tough to critique. Most of the segment has real life twins Joie and Cinqué Lee (siblings of Spike) bitching and nagging each other like 10-year-old twins might, which frankly makes for boring cinema. But when Steve Buscemi’s Memphis waiter crashes the scene, the segment takes off. Spouting about Elvis’ supposed evil twin, Buscemi has a serious blast hamming it up, and his reaction to the Lee’s claiming that Elvis was a lyrical thief and out and out racist is purely... Buscemi. B

Somewhere in California
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Palme d’Or, Somewhere in California is easily one of the most accomplished segments of Jarmusch’s anthology. Iggy Pop waits anxiously in a dive bar before Tom Waits slowly enters the booth. The two introduce themselves, and engage in a profoundly awkward conversation. Iggy seems completely taken with his guest, while Tom can’t quite seem to figure out what he’s doing there. As the conversation evolves, the two elect to smoke as a way of congratulating themselves for having quit smoking. A hilarious segment with a perfect, subtle ending. A

Those Things’ll Kill Ya
Typecast movie wiseguys, Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella (both great in Scorsese’s Casino) sit and talk that perfect wiseguy trash. Rigano busts Vella’s balls about his smoking, and in turn, Vella gets on Rigano about his coffee addiction. The segment is short, sweet, and truly hilarious. It’s that Italian form of arguing (the kind where anything you say is wrong, but everything is right), executed ingeniously. You can’t not laugh. A-

Renée French drinks and smokes while flipping through a gun magazine. Occasionally, a nervous waiter approaches her and either refills her coffee, or apologizes for refilling it already. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this segment, but it adds nothing to anything. C-

No Problem
Friends Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé drink and smoke as Bankolé repeatedly asks his friend if he’s okay. Descas continually asserts that he is, and after a brief while, Bankolé kindly leaves. Once Bankolé has left the scene, Descas takes out a pair of dice and rolls them on the table. Like Reneé, it isn’t that No Problem is bad, just uninteresting. C-

This gem features Cate Blanchett playing herself, drinking and smoking and talking with her hardened cousin, Shelly, who is also played by Blanchett. From an acting standpoint, few segments in Coffee and Cigarettes top Cousins. On one hand, we’re presented with the version of Cate Blanchett that all of us expect: kind, impossibly gorgeous, and a little self-deprecating. But in the same frame, there is this unrecognizable Blanchett that is the complete antithesis of the real person: rude, frank, and all together sloppy. It’s a great juxtaposition, one that never gets tired. A

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil
The only segment of the film that I enjoy nothing about, Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil has Jack and Meg White sitting in mostly silence, before Jack flares up his Tesla coil and spouts philosophical drivel about the famed inventor. Given Meg’s lifeless “performance,” and a cameo by Cinqué Lee (who is equally lifeless in Twins), I simply have nothing noteworthy to say about this one. D

The inarguable highlight of Coffee and Cigarettes has a pompous Steve Coogan meeting an overly excited Alfred Molina in a swanky LA café. Their conversation begins with Molina’s unadulterated admiration for Coogan’s craft, and Coogan blankly trying to recall exactly who Molina is and what he’s starred in. After a few moments (with Coogan’s arrogant patience tested to its limit), Molina displays documented proof that the two men are (very) distant cousins.

Coogan couldn’t care less about any of this, until Molina takes a phone call that completely alters the dynamic of the conversation. The initial awkwardness is utterly perfect, and the shift in tone is as seamless as it is hysterical, making Cousins? a perfect short film in its own right. A+

Easily the film’s most talked about segment has Wu-Tang Clan members GZA and RZA sitting in a restaurant drinking caffeine-free herbal tea, before Bill Murray appears as a waiter and offers them some coffee. The two never let “Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray” forget who he is, all while giving him impactful health advice. Hilarity ensues throughout and we’re reminded that no one other than Jim Jarmusch could make a conversation between GZA, RZA and Bill Murray work as expertly as it does. An amusingly random pairing of men that is ceaselessly enjoyable. A

Old school New Yorkers Bill Rice and Taylor Mead (the latter’s claim to fame was starring in the Andy Warhol film, Taylor Mead’s Ass) spend their coffee break drinking, smoking, and listening to Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, which appears to be playing out of nowhere. They wax philosophic, before ending Coffee and Cigarettes on an appropriately nostalgic note. Nothing fantastic about this one, but it just… fits. B+

Previous installments of Anthology Breakdown include:


  1. Love this movie. Agree with you on most of these -- my favorites are Iggy/Waits, Molina/Coogan and GZA/RZA/Murray. I have to admit that I even like the White Stripes segment, even if it is one of the weaker ones.

    Great piece, man!

    1. Thanks dude! Yeah, those are definitely my favorite segments as well. The White Stripes one though... I can just never get into it. Does nothing for me. Oh well though, still a great flick!

  2. My top 5 favorite segments in that film are...

    1. Cousins
    2. Delirium
    3. Somewhere in California
    4. Cousins?
    5. Strange to Meet You

    My least favorite was Renee as I felt not much was happening. I liked the White Stripes segment. Largely because of the music that's being played in the background which is the Stooges' "Down on the Street" from my favorites Stooges album, Fun House.

    1. Solid picks man, very close to how I'd rank my favorites as well. I agree that not much goes on in Reneé, which doesn't make me appreciate it.

      I do like that Stooges track in the White Stripes segment, but all in all, I think the film could do without it. Just my opinion though.

  3. Haha I love this post. When I had originally seen this film, I had wanted to make something similar.
    Oddly enough, Renee is one of my favourite segments, precisely because nothing happens in it. I sort of want to be Renee- just sit in a coffee shop, drinking coffee, smoking and looking at books about guns.
    Love Cousins and Cousins?
    I don't remember the others, but it's such a weird and cool film.

    1. Thanks!

      I kinda love that you love Reneé, and I'm sure that was precisely what Jarmusch was going for: trying to make something interesting by showing a woman doing next to nothing.

      The two Cousins segments are classic. Love the hell out of them.

  4. I love this movie, and now I really want to see it again. Cousins? was my favourite segment also, though I have a lot of time for Jack and Meg White even if they are acting horrendously. Been a White Stripes fan for ages, always thought the sequence with them was neat.

    1. Nice man, isn't Cousins? remarkable? I just love it.

      Also, I appreciate that while you like The White Stripes segment, you openly admit how awful their acting is. I was trying to down play it but... wow.

  5. Never heard of this, but it sounds amazing, I am definitely going to try to find it soon! Thanks!I love anthologies!

    1. It's a really fine anthology film. Some segments are really strong, some are rather weak, but it is very well balanced.

      Hope you like it!

  6. Some of this was good, and some of it wasn't. The favorites of mine that I always remember is Bill Murray and RZA meeting, and Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. All of the others I have either forgotten about, or just didn't really care about when I watched. Good break-down my bud.

    1. Yeah agree, some good, some not so good. Those are two of my favorite segments as well. I honestly had no recollection of a few of these segments before rewatching it last week.

      Glad you liked the post, thanks for your comment!

  7. I really like the film but it always makes me smoke even more than I normally do during watching movies. I actually like Renee, mostly because that girl is so insanely gorgeous, I couldn't stop looking at her. I agree about White Stripes segment, it was pretty pointless.

    1. Ha, you're funny. Renée French is a knockout, no argument from me. But watching that segment, I just think: "And...?"

      Glad we agree on The White Stripes scene.

  8. This is wonderful... Now I just need to see the film. ;)