In the midst of my Australian tour and with the Academy Awards a week away, I thought we ought to pick a movie with the most prominent Aussie to be nominated this year: Cate Blanchett, who may be looking at a third Oscar on her mantelpiece by the end of the month. In private life Miss Blanchett is a near parodic limousine liberal ("Green before it was hip, she cites Al Gore and David de Rothschild as heroes and believes that leaf blowers 'sum up everything that is wrong with the human race,' " etc.) who's lowered her own carbon footprint by drinking her own urine: for her home in Oz, she paid their architect thousands of dollars to design a system whereby the bodily waste goes down the toilet, gets whisked by pipeline through the walk-in closet, over the balcony, down the wall, back in through the rec room, and up into the wet bar directly into the soda siphon.
If that's the secret of her success, have one for me: What other actress has played both Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan? Nevertheless I must confess I have a preference for her earlier films, in which she is luminous, over the later work, such as the severe mien she maintains in The Monuments Men. She's wonderful as the hungry textile heiress Meredith Logue in Anthony Minghella's adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). Like the eponymous Ripley, she's also role-playing her way through Italy, though from the opposite end of the spectrum: While Matt Damon's Tom is a nobody trying to pass himself off as a wealthy playboy, Miss Blanchett's Meredith is slumming, trying to shake off the confines of high society. They're very good together in a patchy picture that makes the film more ordinary than the book.
That same year she played Lady Chiltern in Oliver Parker's film of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. She gives a lovely performance, simultaneously winsome and priggish, but Parker's script is full of ghastly solecisms ("the Indian Ambassador" , in 1895) that make the film all but unwatchable for me. So I decided to go with what's not exactly a favorite Cate Blanchett movie, but is my favorite Cate Blanchett scene - from Jim Jarmusch's film Coffee & Cigarettes.
I like coffee, I like tea, I like the java jive, but the Jarmusch jive is a bit more hit and miss. Jim Jarmusch spent two decades working on Coffee & Cigarettes: if you're wondering why Roberto Benigni looks so youthful in this finally completed version, that's because his scene was filmed in 1986, eighteen years before its release. Even then, the whiff of decadence in the title had a period charm. Whenever I hear the phrase, I think of Peggy Lee singing "Black Coffee'", just hanging around doing nothing all day but "drown her past regrets/in coffee and cigarettes". Back in '86, you could still drop by a lunch counter and have a coffee and cigarette. It's harder now: the ciggies are banished to the sidewalks, and coffee itself has been transformed, from a relatively cheap and simple business β percolator on the counter, all the refills you want for a quarter β to an elaborate ritual involving shots of caramel, sprinkles of cinnamon, a slice of pepperoni, all for six ninety-five and a 20-minute wait.
Jarmusch's monochrome movie exists in some stylised pop-cult neverland remote from these trends. In Coffee & Cigarettes, the former comes off better than the latter. Given that the film's retro-cool look is very heavy on the contrast between black coffee and white cigarettes, it's unfortunate that a good half of the cast are rather unconvincing smokers. The coffee and the cigarettes, the black and the white, is pretty much the entire premise. Jarmusch got the idea of throwing unlikely combinations of players together for 11 vignettes over check-cloth tables for a cup o' joe and a smoke and seeing what happens.
The answer is not much. That first scene, with the excitable Roberto Benigni babbling away and the languid stand-up Steven Wright drawling his responses, must have seemed funnier in '86, when Wright was a lot cooler and Benigni was blessedly unknown to most of us. But even in perfect conditions it seems like a rough draft rather than a fleshed-out comic idea. Benigni talks fast, Wright talks slow: that's the joke, but not one that ever finds any genuine comedic rhythm.
Granted, if you made that objection to Jarmusch, he'd think you were drearily conventional. It was clear 30 years ago that he had little interest in narrative or character, but the whole too-cool-for-school shtick has massively expanded since then. For a film featuring so much coffee, almost all its episodes are sluggish and enervated, as if cast and crew are still waiting for their first jolt of caffeine. Even the idea of wacky twosomes is less interesting in practice: in the old days, you might have wrung some juice out of it β Laurence Olivier and Sammy Davis Jr, Benny Hill and Gore Vidal, etc β but the trouble here is that whoever shows up lapses almost immediately into the default too-hip-to-trip mode of the Jarmusch repertory company. Bill Murray, for example, plays himself moonlighting as a waiter, where he serves the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and RZA, also playing themselves, and drinks the coffee direct from the pot, whereupon RZA, who is also a practitioner of alternative medicine, prescribes to Bill a course of gargling with oven cleaner.
I have the feeling that in cold print that sounds a lot livelier than it is. In practice, it plays like an overlong round of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" where all the participants are stoned. For the rest, there's Tom Waits and Iggy Pop and Jack and Meg White eschewing drama, acting, dialogue, timing. As CinquΓ© Lee demands of Steve Buscemi, "So what are you saying? What's the punchline?'" Jim Jarmusch's disinclination to provide answers to those questions made him a hip dude on the margins of mainstream movies. But by 2004 he was a lot more marginal than hip.
Fortunately, there are two episodes that generate some serious comic energy from the premise. In one, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan play, respectively, an actor called "Alfred Molina" who requests a meeting with fellow Brit thesp "Steve Coogan" while he's visiting Los Angeles. Alfred says he's a huge fan of Steve and Steve replies that "obviously" he's "aware" of Alfred's work. Molina says he asked to meet for a reason and slides a manila folder across the table.
"What stage is this at?" Coogan demands. "Is it greenlit? Is it a treatment?"
So Molina explains that it's not a project, it's just that he was doing some genealogical research and discovered that they're cousins β they share the same great-great-great-grandfather, and that's pretty amazing and exciting, isn't it? Maybe they can hang out, get to know each other.
Coogan doesn't think so.
This encounter is the only one that has any narrative resolution β indeed, for Jarmusch, it's almost an O Henry twist. And Molina's rueful big-heartedness, which anchors the scene, is almost the antithesis of a Jarmusch performance. One notes also the curious fact that, in a movie about coffee, the most effective episode features a couple of tea drinkers. "Shall I be mother?" offers Molina, sweetly offering the pot. "I'll be my own mother," mumbles Coogan dourly. That may be the best exchange in the picture.
But, in a film of wacky pairings Cate Blanchett gets the wackiest: Cate Blanchett plays both a star called "Cate Blanchett" and, under a long black wig, her sourly jealous cousin Shelly in a strained encounter in the lounge of her hotel:
SHELLY (looking around): D'you stay here overnight? Or do you just do your press stuff here?
CATE: Oh, no... no... I stay here overnight...
The loser cousin is a laugh, but Cate as "Cate" visibly struggling not to condescend or provoke is a miniature masterpiece. Miss Blanchett pulls off single-handedly what most of the double-acts never quite manage β two people meeting for coffee and never connecting:
SHELLY: It's just... funny, don't ya think, that when you can't afford something, it's like really expensive but then when you can afford it, it's like, free? It's kinda backwards, don't ya think?
CATE: Yeah, well... the world is a bit like that...I guess... in a lot of ways...
The difference in vocal timbre is ingenious. I haven't yet seen Miss Blanchett in Carol, but her 11-minute solo double-act in Coffee & Cigarettes ought to have made her the first star to pick up a Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for the same picture. Or Best Self-Supporting Actress.