With the possible exception of his appearance as "Frostee Cream Boy" in Sling Blade, Jim Jarmusch's most memorable moment as an actor came in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's knockabout character-fest Blue In The Face. Paying a visit to Harvey Keitel's cigar store, Jarmusch talks his way through what he claims will be his final cigarette, wondering if he'll ever find love again, since all his past relationships have been tied in one way or another to the rituals of smoking. A collection of short films set in coffee shops, diners, bars, hotel lounges, backrooms, and everywhere else that caffeine meets nicotine, Coffee And Cigarettes could be seen as an extension of that monologue, an attempt to show how people bond over smoke and drink. But mostly, it finds missed connections and fraying ties.
Filmed over two decades, the film opens with its oldest segment, a 1986 meeting between the rabbit-and-hare comic sensibilities of Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni. They meet, seem to want to like each other, never quite find common ground, and go their separate ways. A sketchy-yet-resonant piece of off-the-cuff comedy shot in Jarmusch's earliest, driest style, it's emblematic of what's to come.
By definition, grab-bag films are uneven, and some of Coffee And Cigarettes' segments—a meeting of Spike Lee's less-charismatic siblings, an aloof beauty's lonely afternoon—capture Jarmusch at his most oblique and least rewarding. As the film goes along, however, themes and even lines of dialogue resurface, and Jarmusch's comic sensibilities grow more assured.
Two particularly fine segments explore the way fame distorts human relationships. In one, 24 Hour Party People's Steve Coogan attempts to determine what advantage, if any, he can wring from learning that he's related to Alfred Molina. In another, Cate Blanchett fends off the passive-aggressive, though not exactly unwarranted, attacks of a rough-edged cousin (also played, wickedly, by Cate Blanchett). Elsewhere, encounters between The White Stripes and a Tesla coil, and between RZA, GZA, and a "disguised" Bill Murray are as satisfying as they sound.
Jarmusch has cautioned against reading too much continuity into a film whose scenes may have nothing more in common than shared moments over coffee cups, but he closes Coffee And Cigarettes with a sad, graceful moment that sums it all up. As two aging working stiffs share a coffee break, one imagines himself into a better time and place, and the soundtrack swells to accommodate the fantasy. Sometimes, bad habits and awkward company are the best anyone gets, but they're better than nothing.