Watching the 2000 film Chinese Coffee, starring and directed by Al Pacino, I smiled because yet again a film proved to me the utter primacy of the written word over the moving image, even in an art form that would not exist without pictures.
The film is based upon a play written by Ira Lewis, who wrote the screenplay as well, and, given the superb and realistic dialogue uttered by the two main characters, Harry Levine (Pacino) and Jake Manheim (Jerry Orbach), the play seems likely to be a great one.
Yet, the filmic aspects of the movie are almost nil. Pacino’s direction is not awful, merely bad. In so many ways this film would have been much better had it followed the My Dinner With Andre route. Proof? I can still visualize the scene in the Louis Malle film where Andre tells Wally about being buried alive in the Polish woods. So what? Well, the scene was never filmed, merely described to the viewer via the words of Andre Gregory to Wallace Shawn.
Now, contrast that with the numerous pointless camera angles and even pointless flashbacks that add nothing to this film, and the difference is clear. Even worse is the sometimes frenetic use of cuts that Pacino employs whenever Harry and Jake speak. We do not need to see close-ups for every syllable. Long shots that captured their whole body, and even shots from behind, where tone and inflection could take primacy, would have been a welcome addition. Pacino should have relied more on cinematographer Frank Prinzi’s experience to dictate how the scenes would be filmed.
The film’s score, by Elmer Bernstein, is adequate — not too distracting nor too telegraphic. The low budget film also fails when it tries to show, in flashbacks, the younger pair of men, with Pacino sporting a bad wig and Orbach’s hair atrociously dyed. The scenes where Pacino’s Harry is supposed to be only 42 fail, as Pacino, then 60, is just far too old and dissipated, wig notwithstanding, to pull off the eighteen year age difference convincingly.
The tale is set in 1982, in Greenwich Village, with Harry, a failed novelist with two published but remaindered books, being fired from his job as a doorman at a chi-chi French restaurant. He heads over to the small apartment of his friend, Jake, a struggling media photographer who has left a rich wife to live on his own as a Bohemian after three decades as a photographer in strip joints and is an artistic sciolist.