Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chinese Coffee (2000)

Funny, poignant, and delightfully real, this dialogue-heavy cinematic adaptation of the original stage production depicts two older literary types debating their lot in life in a shabby Greenwich village apartment. Al Pacino plays the younger of the two, a struggling author living in a one-room basement apartment and whose girlfriend has just left him for a wealthier man. Jerry Orbach plays his best friend, a photographer who has left his wealthier wife in order to pursue more artistic endeavors. Pacino opens the film getting fired from his upscale doorman job for being too lackadaisical and inactive, and hobbles over to Orbach's place, where the two pontificate and debate the merits and losses of their respective lifestyles. We see the origin of their relationship, the evolution of Pacino and his ex, and their current daily routines. Eventually, the discussion becomes more pointed, as Pacino's most recent work may be more significant to his life, and their relationship, than is initially hinted at.

This is clearly a stage adaptation, with one detailed, evocative primary location, large, looming thematic ambitions, and very intense, highly focused acting. Pacino and Orbach turn in some of the best work I've seen of their latter-day careers; I wish present-day Pacino was less concerned with Shakespeare and more concerned with getting intimate, personal work like this off the ground, because it really brings out that subtle, quiet intensity that he excelled at in his younger days (think Scarecrow or Dog Day Afternoon). Orbach was unjustly relegated to TV (Law and Order) during this time in his later years, and shows that he was just as capable of nuance and introspection as he was in his younger roles with people like Lumet and Woody Allen. The direction, by Pacino, is excellent, creating a clear geography of the apartment, and never shying away from leaving the location for extra subtext or information. The two verbally spar like pros, with the dialogue perfectly cushioning their respective acting styles; they are not the friendliest guys in the world, even to their closest friends. While much has been noted of DeNiro's relationship with downtown Manhattan, I must say that Pacino, here, shows an intimacy and familiarity with the region I was not aware he had; not only does he know how to nail the geography of the area in simple, broad strokes, he understands the mentality of the aging, bohemian denizens that dwell in coffee shops and park benches for inspiration; although the story takes place in 1982, that aspect of the Village has never died, keeping this film both relevent and contemporary, as well as highly emotional and human. 10 points.

Highly Recommended for fans of Al Pacino, Jerry Orbach, or personal, dialogue-heavy stage adaptations. There were more movies like this coming out 10 years ago: The Big Kahuna, Tape, and Lakeboat immediately come to mind. It is a trend that I hope returns, for it brings out the best of its actors, its script, and, best case scenario, as it is here, its director.

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