Secondhand Smoke: Spilling the Beans in 11 Chatty Skits


Historically, you could do worse than think of Jim Jarmusch as the Dylan among America’s current generation of spitballing-structuralist indie auteurs (making Richard Linklater the David Byrne?). Jarmusch has always been, for better or worse, an essentially whimsical voice. Quirky formal ideas lollygag along with the occasional visionary impulse, and the high time Jarmusch has making his free-associative movies surrounded by cool, riffing cronies (and fellow Sons of Lee Marvin) has been an aspect of the films’ buoyancy as well as their self-indulgence.

Perhaps a trifling gag gift like Coffee and Cigarettes is the price we pay for Jarmusch’s redoubtable presence; think of your 10-spot, if you’re so inclined, as a tithe to his next real film. C&C began inauspiciously enough: as a six-minute, 1986 SNL short in which Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright meet at a café table, smoke and drink coffee, and babble uncommunicatively to each other. Running with this wafer-thin idea—and two additional and similar shorts shot since, one starring Cinqué Lee, Joie Lee, and Steve Buscemi, the other Tom Waits and Iggy Pop—Jarmusch conceived eight more vignettes, all centered around cups o’ joe and some smokes, all shot in high-contrast black-and-white.

C&C hardly coalesces, but then again, it doesn’t try to—never more or less than what it appears to be, the film is a slow honky-tonk thud-beat, only intermittently punctuated by a joke or idea. Crispy conversational tidbits reoccur; silences are long and awkward. Essentially playing themselves, the various co-conspirators (who include Bill Murray and the White Stripes) occasionally break out of the caffeinated trance: Cate Blanchett, playing both herself and her jealous white-trash cousin, whips up enough bemused psychodrama for an hour’s worth of soap opera, while Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, in a deft teatime contest between Hollywood careering and normalized social intercourse, expertly flesh out the best-written episode. But if there’s a moving moment among the stubbed butts, it’s the wounded look on Iggy’s face when Waits lackadaisically insults him during a friendly roadhouse rendezvous—somehow this ragged visage of age-old American pop-ness still exudes a boyhood’s tender innocence.