When the writer-director Jim Jarmusch first came to prominence with ''Stranger Than Paradise'' (1984), the cool of his characters was defined by a deadpan series of signifiers: the tiny fedoras they wore, the shabby apartments they lived in, the fact that they dug old stuff like TV dinners and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. More than anything, though, Jarmusch's hipsters barely talked to each other, and when they did, they scarcely communicated. In the '80s, a decade of money and glitz and noise, he reveled in conversational impoverishment. He was the downtown master of the pregnant pause.
Jarmusch's new film, Coffee and Cigarettes, is a collection of 11 mostly two-character dialogue sketches, each of them shot in lustrous black and white and set around a single table in a restaurant or coffee shop. At first, the movie looks like a nostalgic throwback to Jarmusch's trademark poker-faced minimalist style. The opening sketch, featuring Steven Wright, Roberto Benigni, and half a dozen cups of espresso, was made in 1986 -- the actors barely seem to be from the same galaxy -- and for a while ''Coffee and Cigarettes'' is amusing in a dazed, slightly torpid way. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, playing themselves, sit in the back booth of a bar, where they engage in a goofy non-dialogue of mutual petty rivalry that is dissolute enough to seem practically autistic. Each sketch revolves around the title's addictive pleasures, notably the proverbial cup of joe, a motif that has the potential to be stretched way too thin. But just when you're certain that Jarmusch is treading water with his borderline-tedious cleverness, something happens: ''Coffee and Cigarettes'' turns into a movie FULL of talk -- rich, supple, hilarious, masterfully orchestrated talk. Jarmusch the sly formalist, it seems, has become a virtuoso of the interpersonal duet.
You can feel the movie kick in when Cate Blanchett shows up in the double role of her affable, blond, celebrity self and her rude, shaggy-haired yob cousin -- a character who might be Blanchett's expression of everything she doesn't trust about stardom. And that's just a warm-up for the highlight: a brilliant, protracted sketch in which the British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, playing themselves, engage in a squirmingly ''polite'' war of egos that's so fraught with high tension you'll be cringing between laughs. (Cast as the ultimate careerist jerk, Coogan, the ringleader of ''24 Hour Party People,'' proves a major star.) Jarmusch's theme -- a question, really -- is whether people who happen to be sharing a setting and a stimulant are ever really connecting. His answer, which is pure beatnik Zen, is this: They are...even when they're not. By the end, as Bill Murray guzzles java straight out of the pot, jovially sparring with GZA and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, it's coffee, that eternal mood swinger, that has come to seem an elixir of the past. Talk, the movie says, is the new caffeine. Jarmusch leaves you dying for a refill.