One of my favorite things about Jim Jarmusch’s movies is that pretty much nothing happens, and yet it’s always incredibly enjoyable. My first foray into Jarmuschland was Broken Flowers, where Bill Murray goes on a journey and doesn’t find what he’s looking for and is pretty much left with more questions than answers by the end. Then I watched Dead Man, where Johnny Depp is on the run from the law for killing a man in self-defense, transforms into a complete badass and is guided by a Native American who is actually played by a Native American. There’s a little more resolution here, but it’s still more about the conversations and the thought processes rather than completing a task. Coffee and Cigarettes is the epitome of this style, where the movie isn’t about anything specific, but instead is a series of 5-10 minute vignettes where people talk over coffee and cigarettes.
There are particular themes that appear over and over, like Tesla (the White Stripes discuss Tesla, and the two men in the last vignette repeat a line about the Earth being a conductor of acoustical resonance), twins (the Lee siblings in the vignette “Twins”, and though the White Stripes are not related in reality, they have often presented themselves as siblings close in age, and it is easy to imagine them as twins in this film), cousins (Cate Blanchett playing herself and her fictional cousin, Alfred Molina telling Steve Coogan they are cousins, the appearance of the Wu-Tang members GZA and RZA, who are cousins) and the dangers of smoking (GZA and RZA tell Bill Murray his cough is from his smoking, a vignette is called “Those Things’ll Kill Ya).
There’s also the common thread of a hidden knowledge, skill or connection that one speaker has, but the other person in the conversation doesn’t realize, making them look foolish. Meg White seems uninterested in Jack’s Tesla coil at first, but turns out to know a lot about electrical wiring when it breaks. Steve Coogan doesn’t want to hang out with Alfred Molina or give him his phone number until it turns out that Molina has connections to Spike Jonze. Once Coogan finds out, he tries to make amends, but Molina is offended by Coogan’s obvious change of heart and refuses. Steve Buscemi, as the waiter who brings coffee to the Lees, speaks highly of Elvis, but is cut down when the Lees dismiss Elvis and tell him about the music he stole from black musicians (leading Buscemi to insist it was Elvis’s evil twin).
My personal favorite vignettes are “Twins”, “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil” and “Delirium”, but they’re all interesting in their own way. So what if the movie isn’t ABOUT anything? It’s still funny, dark and well-made. You go, Jim Jarmusch.