Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Movie: Coffee & Cigarettes (2004)

I hope that the latest effort from Jim Jarmusch provoked some irritated phone calls from Howard Schultz’s office. “Let me get this straight. Ten short films about people hanging out drinking coffee and not one of them is set in a Starbucks? Fire the product placement division. I don’t understand. This could have been a win-win. We had such a nice deal with Nora Ephron on YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Didn’t this Jarmusch guy see it?”

The short form has always showcased Jarmusch at his best; he’s a master at conveying mood in a pause or a glance held a beat too long. His feature-length films like GHOST DOG have their rewarding moments but seem enervated. You can feel him growing antsy and craving a smoke. That’s never an issue here; a few times we leave the company of various characters too soon.

A palpable subtext about the inability to communicate runs through these stories. People have lost the capacity to hang out, in spite of the fact that empires have been built providing space to do just that. Isaach de BankolĂ© can’t believe his friend simply wants to spend time with him, so he hounds him to deliver some bad news. Even hipsters aren’t immune; Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, playing themselves, get together only to have their conversation devolve into misunderstandings and one-upmanship.

Jarmusch, the quintessential downtown New York artist, proves to be an uncommonly skilled satirist of Hollywood. Cate Blanchett’s segment, in which the actress plays herself and a spiteful cousin trying to make nice, lays out the effects fame has on family in a lean eight minutes. The high point of the film – and of the cinematic year so far – is the disastrous meeting between actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. It takes place in a Los Angeles teahouse, which is the start of the problems right there: no coffee. Coogan’s in town to take meetings building off the heat from his performance in 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. Molina only wants to introduce himself and share a piece of genealogical history he’s discovered. Coogan is incapable of seeing the man across the table as a fellow human being looking for a moment of connection until it’s too late. There’s as much venom and astute show biz anthropology in this segment’s brief running time as there is in all of THE PLAYER. Both men are brilliant, but Coogan’s self-parody is unflinching.

Several years ago BBC America aired Coogan’s series KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU. He played Alan Partridge, a radio DJ who had somehow convinced the Beeb to give him a ‘chat show.’ The talentless, self-absorbed Partridge was uniquely ill-suited to the task, and in short order he was opening each show with complaints about his competitors and his lousy reviews. In the final episode he announced that he’d been cancelled and then accidentally killed one of his guests on live television. Coogan’s masterstroke was to bring the character back in I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE. Alan’s resumed his gig on morning radio in Norwich, doing appearances at local fairs and plotting his return to the big time. It was blistering television that made Larry David look like Ray Romano. Perhaps the show went too far; BBC America hasn’t repeated it in ages, and there’s a second season of PARTRIDGE that they never bothered to run at all. Until the Region 1 DVD comes out I’ll settle for whatever Steve Coogan I can get, even if it means seeing him play opposite Jackie Chan in the remake of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.