Two men meet in a cafe for coffee and cigarettes. The American (Steven Wright) tells the Italian (Roberto Benigni) of how much he loves coffee, and how he drinks plenty before bedtime so that his dreams will zip by at high speeds. He then says that it's a bit loud where he's sitting and they change chairs, but the American decides he preferred it where he was and they swap back. The American mentions that he has a dentist's appointment that he is not looking forward to and the Italian offers to go in his place, which the American gratefully agrees to, so the Italian finishes his cup of coffee and rushes off...
And so the film continues, with brief vignettes staged over, as the title implies, coffee and cigarettes and with communication troubles ever present. As anyone who has seen Blue in the Face will know, writer and director Jim Jarmusch has a fixation on cigarettes, and he must have delighted in including the coffin nails in every scene of this, which was shot over a period of seventeen years. It resembles the days of when he first came to prominence on the cult scene - the eighties, the last, great era of smoking in cinema. Take a look at Ghostbusters next time it's on television and see how much smoking the heroes do; in a few short years that would be deeply unfashionable, and not only in Hollywood movies. Now if a character smokes he or she is either unfriendly, unhealthy or rebellious (but not necessarily in a good way). Just watch and coffee may go the same way.
The stories in Coffee and Cigarettes are all comic to some degree, a few more gentle than others, but neither outlining any world-shattering events. It's all very quiet and almost subdued, one tale even illustrating the mild drama of an overeager waiter spoiling a carefully prepared cup of coffee. As the film draws on you'll notice details such as the difference in character between those who take milk in their coffee and those who like it black, or with sugar - sometimes a lot of sugar. They're slices of life, some featuring stars as themselves, some not; Cate Blanchett cleverly appears as both herself, the movie star, and her lookalike (apart from her hair) cousin, a notably non-famous rock chick from Australia, and the awkwardness between them, even though they're both the same person, is nicely portrayed.
It's difficult to pick out the highlights, as they are all worthwhile to a certain degree, even if they work best individually. Steve Buscemi appears as an Elvis Presley obsessed waiter who maps out his conspiracy theory about Elvis' evil twin to two actual twins, Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee, one of whom may be "evil"! His theory sounds a little like the plot to Bubba Ho-Tep, incidentally. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits appear in a scene of well nigh spectacular inconsequence, where they skirt around any real conversation in an attempt not to offend each other, but end up alienating themselves nonetheless. Rock band The White Stripes, aka Jack White and Meg White, have a chat about the Tesla coil that Jack has with him, which he readily demonstrates (and breaks).
As the presentation is so relaxed and trivial, you'll find your eye settling on a fly investigating a table top, or spot portraits of Henry Silva (one of the stars of Jarmusch's previous film) and Jarmusch hero Lee Marvin on the walls behind the actors. But when the action takes off, with the personalities creating sparks, they really stand out. Alfred Molina arranges a meeting with Steve Coogan to discuss a possible common relationship they may have; Coogan is obviously not interested until Molina gets a phone call from Spike Jonze in a biting comedy of embarrassment. One of the funniest sections sees The GZA and The RZA discussing the benefits of the healthy lifestyle and drinking non-caffeine tea, when Bill Murray, as movie star Bill Murray, appears to serve them coffee, which he casually drinks from the pot. As likely to drive you up the wall with its uneventfulness as it is to entertain you, Coffee and Cigarettes takes it easy with good humour and a poignant ending.