Coffee and Cigarettes

Ordinary people don’t generally go for Jim Jarmusch’s quirky indie films, and while “Coffee and Cigarettes” won’t be the one to earn him a huge mainstream audience, it is accessible in a harmless, unpretentious sort of way.

It is, simply, 11 separate scenes — self-contained short films, even — featuring one, two or three people drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and talking. The coffee and cigarettes are the only unifying theme, and they usually get a brief mention within the conversations. But otherwise, the chatting covers a wide variety of topics, all mundane, never important, some interesting, some not so much.

The first scene, between mega-hyper Roberto Benigni and ultra-deadpan Steven Wright in a run-down outdoor cafe, was shot in 1986. The third, featuring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits at a California roadside diner, is from 1992, and won a short-film award at Cannes in 1993. (Waits amusingly claims to be both a doctor and a musician, “living in that place where they overlap.”) The rest of the scenes are recent, and feature other actors, mostly well-known, mostly playing themselves, mostly engaging in skits and sketches, with a few that you could call legitimate “scenes.”

I adore the scene with Cate Blanchett playing both herself and her (I presume fictional) inelegant, unfamous, jealous cousin Shelly, meeting for a quick coffee in a hotel lobby while Cate engages in a publicity tour. They discuss the quirks and perks of fame, Cate radiating grace and charm the way she always does, and Shelly radiating jealousy and crassness. Whether Jarmusch wrote it all himself or whether Blanchett (and the others, in the other scenes) contributed, I don’t know. But this exchange feels as true to life as anything I’ve read about the life of a celebrity.

Another highlight is between Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina — both Brits, so they drink tea instead of coffee — with Molina presenting exciting information to a very uninterested Coogan. That these two are good actors anyway helps a lot; a scene between Jack White and Meg White of the White Stripes doesn’t fare as well, largely due to the participants’ lack of charisma when they’re not playing rock ‘n’ roll.

The great scenes are ultimately outnumbered by the forgettable ones, giving the film an unfortunate feeling of tedium. It’s worth sticking around to the end, though, if only to see Bill Murray interact with GZA and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan.

B- (1 hr., 35 min.; R, one scene with a ton of F-words; otherwise fairly tame.)