Jarmusch's collection of twelve short films about various people sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes has the problems you'd expect from a collection of twelve short films about various people sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Some work, some don't. Some are funny, some are boring.
For fans of Jarmusch – and I'm a big one – watching this film is like studying, in miniature, his development as an artist over the course of his career, as the first short in Coffee and Cigarettes was filmed way back in 1986, when Jarmusch was still fairly new to the scene. Over the course of the next ten years, he filmed five more shorts seemingly whenever he felt like it. In 2003 he got serious and filmed six more at once, with the same crew, and the difference is fascinating. Jarmusch unspools the twelve stories in the order in which they were made, so halfway through the film everything perks up: the acting, the black and white cinematography, and above all the tightness of each story.
Back in the '80s, Jarmusch was considered cool because in films like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, he favored non-actors sitting around talking about almost nothing. That style is evident in the early Coffee and Cigarettes shorts starring Steven Wright & Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits & Iggy Pop. But today the hipness of deadpan has faded, and so those shorts feel limp.
After making the more visually mature and intellectually complex features Dead Man and Ghost Dog, the Jarmusch behind the latter six shorts is older and wiser, and his stories are funnier and deeper. Since he has his actors mostly playing themselves throughout, Jarmusch even developed that idea into explorations of fame, so that whereas Roberto Benigni plays "Roberto", Bill Murray knowingly plays off his legendary standoffishness by portraying Bill Murray, movie star, hiding out as a waiter. Better still is the tart encounter between British character actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and best of all is a downright transcendental exchange between Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett, playing both herself and her bitter, non-famous cousin.
Taken as a whole, Coffee and Cigarettes is a shrug. It will probably be more effective on DVD where you the viewer can pick and choose which shorts you want to sit through.