Jim Jarmusch's new movie features a few more than two dozen people in just less than a dozen shorts, smoking and pontificating over cups of joe. To make sure this is perfectly clear, he's named the whole thing "Coffee and Cigarettes," like the Otis Redding song, only backward. You'd think that after 1991's rowdy "Night on Earth," which he could have called "Cabs and Cigarettes," Jarmusch would have given up on gimmicky anthologies. But the idea here is basic enough to escape the grating cosmic pretenses and structural headache of "Night on Earth," which followed five taxi rides in five cities at the same time.
"Coffee and Cigarettes" is a lark for Jarmusch, who's become the independent movie's hipster uncle. His "Stranger Than Paradise" is the original "Lost in Translation," and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" the prototypical volume of "Kill Bill." Here, he's coasting on his good name.
A few of the bits in "Coffee and Cigarettes" he filmed years ago, and their cumulative weightlessness is almost a surprise coming from someone whose last film, "Ghost Dog," was so despondent and ponderous you had to wonder if he'd ever recover his sense of humor. But there's buoyancy in this new movie's conceit: wacky juxtapositions. The opening credits make the hilarious promise of "GZA, RZA and Bill Murray," then, more than an hour later, the two Wu-Tang Clan rappers and the actor are delivered in one nutty vignette. Before that, we get the comatose comic Steven Wright sitting down with an epically overcaffeinated Roberto Benigni, who blurts non sequiturs, including this telling admission: "I don't understand nothing!"
Elsewhere, the picture is typically deadpan. It's shot in an evocatively grainy black and white that gives the unmistakable impression you're watching people talk in an ashtray. This effect playfully denudes the White Stripes' Jack White and Meg White of their trademark licorice-and-peppermint color coding.
At the heart of most of these encounters is talk about the nature of relationships -- cousins, twins, and peers. Mostly, though, Jarmusch displays an unexpected interest in the ironies and banalities of fame. Nearly all the stars play themselves, and the jokes rarely stray far from that.
Sometimes, though, the gags reap rewards. In a hugely funny run-in, the English actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan sit down -- for tea -- and show off their connections and projects. The overly polite Molina gets around to pulling out a family tree that proves that the obnoxious, condescending Coogan is his cousin. The scene has the wit, comedic structure, tension, and, weirdly enough, character development that most of the other bits lack. Only occasionally does the movie go deeper than stuntsmanship. Cate Blanchett plays both herself and, with a black wig and a mean slouch, her slacker cousin Shelly. Cate's embarrassed of her own celebrity, while her commoner cousin gives guilt trips and mocks the perks of stardom. Blanchett's both a good sport and a superior actress, turning this chat into a bitter role-playing episode from a vintage Mike Leigh movie. Here the film's preoccupation with celebrity turns adventurously psychoanalytic.
A more self-impressed celebrity zoologist would have been content to wrap things up with GZA, RZA, and Murray, observing as two universes of cool meet. The movie's verve quotient starts to wear thin right about then, but just as the cutesy incongruities begin to lose their amusement, the movie gains a soul. Jarmusch has aged into a hipster of a sly, vulnerable vintage, which explains the final conversation between Bill Rice and Taylor Mead, the Lucy and Desi of experimental short film.
Their powwow is called "Champagne," which refers to what Mead wishes he were drinking instead of the terrible coffee. Rice is the grounded curmudgeon, Mead the aged dreamer -- OK, hallucinator. He thinks he hears Mahler's "I Have Lost Track of the World," and his derangement makes for utterly bewildering magic. Decades removed from his days as a Warhol superstar, Mead has become a movingly odd sage, like Yoda and Nina Simone time-sharing some white guy's body. He deepens the movie's mock surrealism with real, dreamy sadness.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.