In an almost absent plot, lack of emotional involvement, uninteresting and unamusing conversations which might rather be passed off as light, senseless banter, vignettes abruptly stopping as if someone slept on the editing table, Coffee & Cigarettes is a revelation and a memorable, collectible piece of art. Why do I call it a piece of art? Well, I have my reasons for that. Where else have you seen a craftsman not making any effort to divulge his craftsmanship? Where else would you see a bevy of “star performers” making a subtle understatement in their performances, which are not trying any bit to be performances? These are almost unpretentious stories or pieces that challenge the basic tenets of story-telling. Though all of them are unique in their treatment and proximity to life, the ones that stay with me still would be – Bill Murray as a psychotic waiter mulling over the harms of addiction and insanity, two old guys in a typical “wishing it was” moment, Alfred Molina trying hard to impress a repulsive Steve Coogan, a hilarious Tesla Coil forming the centre point of an otherwise pointless conversation between Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes and Steve Buschemi weighing the chances rather trying to prove that Elvis isn’t dead and that he has a twin. There is something about this film that is not visible but like a supernatural force, pulls you towards it, sucks you in an invisible paranoia that screams that you like it, though you still might not willingly accept it.
Coffee and Cigarettes is one those films that clearly sets your expectations from the word go. You already know what you are in for. You just can’t say you were not warned, in case you choose to retaliate against the assault on your senses.
There is pretence in its unpretentious image. It plays around with your imagination, while you would expect the film maker to shock you; it presents the most obvious realizations of ideas of them all. Even you would want the actors to talk about all the unknown and interesting things in the world, they will still have coffee and cigarettes as the central point of their uninteresting conversations. Now if one is familiar with Jarmusch’s absurdist cinema, he would know why he isn’t trying any bit to entice the viewer in the oft-heard conversations that the film depicts.
Situations vary from disoriented youth to aging men to fabricated conversations to faked relationships. The camera hardly makes you think about its existence.
There is not much to say about the stories. One would think twice before calling them stories even. They are just an unconsciously recalled assortment of conversations overheard in cafes ranging from posh ones to broken down shacks.
There is a sense of discomfort, a similar discomfort you could feel sitting or waiting or contemplating or mulling in an everyday fleeting moment.
It is a great film to talk about or write but a tough one to watch. There is no emotion like cinematic element involved in its viewing. You feel like an uninvited guest or a passer-by forced to listen to these conversations happening anywhere and everywhere.
But amidst this overall glum hue of the narrative, there are interesting moments. Like Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan’s rather lengthy conversation (I guess this is the longest section) with a more proclivity for cinematic wonder and drama within the spirals of Jarmusch’s unamused cinema.
The sequence featuring Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella (Those things‘ll Kill ‘Ya) is strictly Scorsese and Tarantino in its genre.
The concluding short featuring Bill Rice and Taylor Mead is poignant and registers a deeper impact than others because of its “towards the end” and "those were the days" mood. At one point, the camera almost goes still to make you feel the haunting degree of death in their lives.
Then another magical element or cinematic tool used in here is cross-references used by disconnected characters. The mention of Tesla coil, objects flashing by the windows of a car, repeated references of “those things ‘ll kill ‘ya” are an idea to feel good about for someone who feels like losing his money and time in watching this flick.
I do not know whether to call it a flaw or not, but the shorts grow out of being themselves and tell a lot about the director’s perspective on film, almost to the extent of exposing his overt love for the mundane and nothingness through grayscale frames. According to Jarmusch himself, “Life has no plot, why must films or fiction? Rather than finding a story that I want to tell and then adding the details, I collect the details and then try to construct a puzzle of story. I have a theme and a kind of mood and the characters but not a plotline that runs straight through.”
"Coffee and Cigarettes" is an odd, inscrutable film set where waiters spout theories about evil twins or do not appear at all, where food is never consumed and conversation is cryptic, circular, rich, and invariably dissatisfying.” Marcy Dermansky in about.com
This movie, which is full of great music, from Mahler to the Skatalites, much of it wafting in from restaurant jukeboxes, has the serendipitous coherence of an old LP. Some of the tracks are stronger than others, but the magic lies in the echoes and unexpected harmonies between the selections. Snatches of conversation and stray thoughts recur like musical motifs, as if the characters were plucking them out of a common ether of insights and ideas. According to one of these (attributed to the physicist Nikola Tesla) the entire world is a kind of instrument, a transmitter of acoustical resonances. It's a lovely notion, and the implication that beauty and meaning can be found in odd places at unlikely, idle moments resonates through this lovely film. A. O. Scott in New York Times
many of the shorts remind me of moments in my own life when I've been sitting in a bar or coffee shop listening to someone talk who I had nothing to say to. The kind of moment where you try to look at your watch without seeming too obvious, trying your darnedest to think of a good excuse so you can leave. These moments are uncomfortable enough in real life. I have no desire to sit in a theater and watch them play out for others. Jeff Otto says in Filmforce
There are recurring stylistic elements: visual themes, such as checkerboard patterned tables, overhead shots of the arrangements of cups, ashtrays and cigarettes, signature phrases, songs heard in the background. The nature of the meetings, in cafes and diners, necessitates a certain etiquette, a formality that asserts itself over intimacy, even when the characters are close friends or relatives. Yet within this carefully devised framework, there is room for contrariness, improvisation, unexpected twists and turns. While there is a cool style to the presentation of these episodes, and a certain frisson in seeing these actors and musicians playing versions of "themselves", Coffee and Cigarettes isn't a celebration of celebrity, or an indulgence of it. The film feels like an investigation of human behaviour in general, with an attitude that sometimes has the wry knowingness of a maxim by la Rochefoucauld, but is also tempered by a warmer, more generous spirit. Philippa Hawker in The Age