The first time through, you might dismiss Coffee and Cigarettes as a filmmaker's recess, playtime before the serious business of making a real feature. Jim Jarmusch never intended this new movie, a collection of 11 shorts made over the last two decades, to be a movie at all. It began as a one-shot in 1986, when he filmed Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright sharing coffee and smokes in a café that looked as though it had been bombed in 1944 and never rebuilt. The gag, which initially aired on Saturday Night Live, was a brilliant one, pairing the deadpan Wright with the jittery Benigni, who gladly takes the comedian's dentist appointment for no reason other than he has nothing better to do. The short recalls the wonderful sparring scenes between Groucho and Chico Marx from the brothers' later, more desperate movies; Benigni, having just made Down by Law with the filmmaker, was a real-life Chico who spoke English as though he'd learned it that afternoon.
Jarmusch would continue to make the shorts, filming them during the making of other movies or during occasional breaks; the one with Steve Buscemi as a waiter serving fraternal twins Joie and Cinqué Lee was shot in Memphis during the making of Mystery Train. One with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits was shot in 1993; many more, with Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and the White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray, were made only last year, when Jarmusch decided to ditch a troublesome feature in favor of completing a long movie made of many short ones. So, yes, you could dismiss it as a time-killing lark, but you would be wrong.
It is possible that you won't completely enjoy Coffee and Cigarettes the first time through; you'll be thrown by the gag, distracted by the joke-and-punch-line setup of some segments and the absence of a joke in others -- maybe even confused by the abrupt endings of all the shorts. It's like trying to digest a whole concept album -- all four sides of a gate-folded twofer, the kind stoners used to sort their seeds and roll their joints -- in a single sitting. You're not totally there when you initially drop the needle on the vinyl; you're overwhelmed by the thrill of hearing The New Thing for The First Time. You have to revisit that record time after time to appreciate the concept, to figure it out, to admire it, to groove on it, to get it. Only over time does the concept jell, usually when you discover the details that reveal themselves with each revolution of the record.
Coffee and Cigarettes is really a collection of great pop songs: "Cousins" performed by Cate Blanchett (and Cate Blanchett), "Somewhere in California" by Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil" by the White Stripes, and "Delirium" by RZA and GZA, featuring Bill Murray. They're bound by the obvious -- in nearly each segment, the stars share a pack of smokes and a pot of joe -- but also by the subtle. They share verses, lines of dialogue that appear in one short and reappear in a different context later on; they share riffs, including pictures of famous dead actors that hover over scenes; and they share themes, because it's a movie in which famous people, or the nearly famous, play variations of themselves and misunderstand nearly everything the person across the table says to them. It's a movie about discomfort and distance, like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show shot in deadpan black-and-white.
They're all somehow connected, even if it's just having Iggy Pop act in one short and listening to him perform "Down on the Street" with the Stooges in the background of another; in fact, it's two concept albums in one, with an eclectic soundtrack (Funkadelic, Modern Jazz Quartet, the Skatalites, Waits, and C-Side) filling in the awkward pauses left by the actors. Jarmusch may have made these on a whim, but he's so clever, he convinces you otherwise. Some of the shorts are better than others, easily: Blanchett as herself and her bitter, grunged-out cousin Shelly offers a bittersweet chuckle; RZA and GZA referring to an on-the-lam Bill Murray only as "Billmurray" is a gas; the sight of Pop and Waits as wary and defensive strangers is gleefully discomfiting. (It's almost wondrous to hear Pop tell Waits, "You can call me Jim, Jimmy, Iggy, Jiggy.") But best of all is "Cousins?", in which Coogan belittles and flat-out rejects Molina's invitation to be friends (perhaps even family) till the 24 Hour Party People star realizes, too late, that he may be lower on the celebrity food chain after all; the giddy, gotcha look in Molina's eyes is a priceless coda.
But even the lesser shorts will get your toes tapping, chiefly the final one, "Champagne," in which Andy Warhol veteran Taylor Mead and his old collaborator Bill Rice pretend that their sour coffee is actually champagne and that their lunch break in a dilapidated armory is really an afternoon spent on the Seine in the 1920s. It ends the film on a soft note, sung in the lonesome key of Mahler's "I Have Lost Track of the World." If only you could pick up the needle and play the whole thing over again. And again.