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USA 2000
Directed by
Al Pacino
99 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Chinese Coffee

The play’s the thing in Al Pacino’s first feature film and his second directorial effort after his self-referential 1996 documentary, Looking For Richard.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1982. Pacino plays Harry Levine, a penniless writer in his early 40s who has had a couple of now-remaindered books published and wh,o after being summarily dismissed from his job as a doorman, goes to visit his friend, Jake Manheim (Jerry Orbach), an equally-impoverished photographer, ostensibly to collect a debt, but, as we discover, to get the older man’s opinion of his latest manuscript.  

Pacino follows a familiar pattern for screen adaptations of stage works of having the main focus, in this case the confrontation between Harry and Jake, confined  to a theatre-like single settting and offsets this with intermittent flashbacks that serve as backstory illustrating portions of the dialogue. These serve to introduce the only other characters, Harry’s lost-love, Joanna (Susan Floyd), and Jake’s estranged wife, Mavis (Ellen McElduff).  Whilst in terms of the main dramatic these are gratuitous they do serve to give it a cinematic life (and provide an opportunity for Pacino and Orbach to stretch their legs). 

Although at 60 Pacino is incongruous playing a 42 year old, needless to say, his performance is eminently watchable whilst Orbach is equally good as the older man whose knowledge of American literature and superior way with words holds Harry in his thrall.  But unlike Jake, Harry is an actual writer and this gives him an at least blunt weapon to attack Jake’s skilled put-downs as the two men attack and counter-attach each other over the course of he evening, progressively circling closer to the unaddressed topic of Harry’s manuscript. Even if the age spread doesn't mesh we do get the co-dependent relationship of two, literally and metaphorically, very insecure men.

Scripted by Ira Lewis who adapted his own stage play, with its zesty, quick-witted dialogue that is often funny in a tragic-comic way Chinese Coffee will be a treat for anyone who enjoys psychological gamesmanship brought to life by seasoned performers.




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