Jim Jarmusch onetime darling of American ?indie? cinema with Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and the Memphis-filmed Mystery Train has seen his commercial prospects dim considerably in the decade or so since the film scene he helped spur has blurred into a subset of Hollywood business-as-usual. Unlike his generational compatriots Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh, Jarmusch has never found a middle ground (never sought one, really) between his artier impulses and the conventions of commercial filmmaking.
But even if his films are now more difficult to get made and more difficult to see, Jarmusch is still one of America s most compelling filmmakers. His latest, Coffee and Cigarettes, is a series of 11 thematically linked vignettes shot over the past 17 years, some during downtime on the sets of his features (Down by Law and Mystery Train, in particular), others recently. The performers are a mix of professional actors and recognizable musicians, mostly playing themselves.
The vignettes, all in black and white, are essentially coffee breaks. Sets of people, mostly pairs, have coffee-shop conversations over caffeine and nicotine and have the compact but relaxed mood that suggests. Bits of dialogue and ideas are repeated from scene to scene, giving the series shape. Themes emerge, most prominently the tension that exists between relatives and the prickly protocol of celebrity.
The segments centering on celebrity are the most effective and certainly the most fleshed-out. Cate Blanchett is brilliant in a dual role, playing both herself in an elegant hotel suite for a press junket and her less-successful cousin, who has come for a visit. Blanchett seems to be revealing her own fears about the personal ramifications of her success and projecting the self-consciousness her stature has created in those close to her. The entire performance is so virtuosic and feels so personal that, even though Jarmusch is credited with writing the entire film, it s hard to believe there wasn t a significant amount of improv involved.
Nearly as good is a scene between actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Coogan has been summoned to a meeting with Molina, who takes a roundabout path to asking about the two maybe making a movie together. Molina s neediness and Coogan s politeness morphing into condescension is a deft little essay on the competitivness of the entertainment industry and the subtle caste system based on levels of success and celebrity. (And it s made all the funnier since the average filmgoer probably wouldn t recognize either actor.)
Other vignettes get mileage out of the iconic nature of their subjects. A meeting between GZA and RZA of hip-hop s Wu-Tang Clan and Bill Murray is a can t-miss concept that s deliriously funny, especially the way the Wu guys call Murray by his full name throughout the segment. A similarly rewarding gimmick is the meeting of Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, whose surface friendliness belies an insistent competitivness, right down to who does or doesn t have songs on the coffee-shop jukebox. This segment does bring out the one aspect of Jarmusch that s always bothered me a little: a hipper-than-thou quality that sometimes seems to pander to an audience similarly consumed with its own concept of cool. When Waits chastises Pop about not liking the dingy coffee shop ( We could go to Taco Bell if that s more your style ) and Pop seems slightly panic-stricken, it could be a gentle skewering of hipster self-consciousness. But you get the feeling that the film ultimately sides with Waits value system.
Other segments of the film are just dull. But the beauty of the concept is that if you aren t connecting, you only have to wait a few minutes and the segment will be over.
Finally, Memphis audiences will be especially interested in the second vignette, filmed during Jarmusch s stay in Memphis for Mystery Train. It features twins (and Spike Lee siblings) Cinque and Joie Lee bickering over coffee until interrupted by waiter Steve Buscemi, who has some unique ideas about Elvis.
A sneakily modest, endlessly watchable feature, Maria Full of Grace is ostensibly a drug-trade procedural, like a missing parallel plotline from Traffic. But the triumph of the film is that it s also more than its heavy-duty premise: a pregnant Columbian teenager loses her job at a rose plantation and becomes a drug mule, transporting rubber pellets filled with narcotics inside her stomach, to be retrieved from her stool in a seedy New Jersey motel.
Introducing a couple of promising newcomers in director Joshua Marston and unknown actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace is also a story of a dissatisfied young woman finding her way. The drug trade is only an incidental element.
Marston s visual style never draws attention to itself, but his assured direction matches the strong handle he has on his film s tone, which somehow never veers into preachiness or sensationalism.
Though Maria Full of Grace offers harrowing specifics on how this particular drug trade is conducted the gruesomely drawn-out regimen through which a woman is made to swallow more than 60 drug pellets, the messy details of how drugs are re-swallowed in transit when they emerge too soon, the risk of death if a pellet breaks inside the stomach it isn t nearly as lurid as it might be, which is to its credit. What Marston has on his mind is more than just a globalized yet miniaturized crime procedural.
The bigger picture becomes apparent in the film s second half, when Maria flees the Jersey motel for Queens and falls into a remarkably realistic immigrant community. (It comes as no shock to learn that some performers in this section are nonprofessionals playing themselves.) Maria has made some bad choices, certainly, but here we can see her weighing possible futures for her and her unborn child, and we can sense Moreno thinking through Maria s tough decisions.
Marston seems to realize what a special, matter-of-fact young actress he s lucked into here and is smart enough to get out of her way. As Maria, Moreno shows the kind of restraint and naturalism that reminds me of Ashley Judd in Ruby in Paradise, another modest film about a young woman finding her way in the world. Like Judd in that criminally underrecognized film, you can never catch Moreno acting. Her Maria isn t a tear-jerking neorealist heroine or symbol of those exploited by the drug trade or vehicle to the Oscar platform. She just is. And after the credits role you sense that she s still out there discovering her life. n