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Good thing Coffee and Cigarettes is art-house fare, or the folks over at Smoke Free Movies, whose Web site decries onscreen smoking as a “deadly assault on a rising generation worldwide,” would be masticating their carrot sticks all to hell. Still, an early tableau of five coffee cups and a dish full of butts seguing into a close-up of Roberto Benigni’s twitchy face might be enough to scare the kiddies straight. Jim Jarmusch’s 11 conversational vignettes, which originated as a Benigni/Steven Wright short for Saturday Night Live in 1986 and were shot at various times over the next 17 years, portray the title substances as, for good or ill, social lubricants. In “Those Things’ll Kill Ya,” the aptly named Joe (Joe Rigano) empties his cup even as he hectors Vinny (Vinny Vella) about smoking. In “Somewhere in California,” Tom (Tom Waits) and Iggy (Iggy Pop) both claim to have kicked the cancer-stick habit—which leads Tom to grab a pack and declare, “Now that I’ve quit, I can have one.” And in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” well, that’s pretty much what happens to the White Stripes: Here, coffee and cigarettes are incidental to the demonstration of Jack’s “acoustical resonance” device. The film’s strongest segment, “Cousins?” offers pleasures that are subtler still, as two Brits in L.A. (Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan) sip tea as an accompaniment to their delightfully squirmy meeting. Molina and Coogan are brilliant as a little-known actor and a supercilious It Boy, respectively, in a story about cravings and connections—a phrase which, come to think of it, would make a perfect title for Jarmusch’s slight but exquisitely rendered visual medley. With Frederick Elwes’ and other cinematographers’ repeated shots of checkered tablecloths topped with mugs and ashtrays and Jarmusch’s script’s echoing phrases and ideas—the relationship of music and medicine, the notion of caffeine popsicles—Coffee and Cigarettes offers the mildly intoxicating pleasure of a dream.
—Pamela Murray Winters