Throughout his career, Jim Jarmusch has experimented with the notion of just what makes a feature film. His Mystery Train told three overlapping tales set around a seedy Memphis hotel. Night on Earth consisted of five vignettes about taxi drivers and their passengers, all taking place on the same night in different international cities. Now comes Coffee and Cigarettes, 11 black-and-white encounters set in bars and cafs, filmed over the course of 18 years, with the actors often playing themselves. The segments are uneven, some so wispy they all but evaporate off the screen, but the ones that work prove once again that Jarmusch is one of the most dryly amusing, smartest and original independent filmmakers around.

The episodes appear in rough chronological order, beginning with the short that started it all, an encounter between Roberto Benigni and comedian Steven Wright filmed for "Saturday Night Live" in 1986, in which Wright confesses that he drinks coffee before bed to speed up his dreams. It's an engaging enough throwaway, with a wacky punchline involving Wright's dental appointment. That's followed by a thin segment shot during Mystery Train, with cast member Cinqu Lee and his sister Joie as so-called evil and good twins, and Steve Buscemi as the waiter who intrudes on their argument.

The movie picks up with a wry 1992 encounter between musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, with Waits claiming to have a side career as a traveling physician. The gravel-voiced Waits, who starred in Jarmusch's second feature, Down by Law, makes a perfect match with the filmmaker's understatedly droll sensibility.

The next three segments are low on energy and star power (the best-known performer is the African actor Isaach de Bankol), but the collection kicks into gear with the final five pieces, all filmed in early 2003. Cate Blanchett delivers a tour de force playing herself and her envious cousin Shelly (often in the same shot), a needy neurotic who meets the star on a break from a publicity junket in a posh hotel. Shelly, whose boyfriend is in an industrial rock band called Sqürl, channels all her insecurity into barely concealed hostility toward her glamorous cousin, concluding (probably rightly) that Cate's gift of expensive makeup came from a complimentary celebrity goody bag. Blanchett embodies these two contrasting personalities with absolute precision and wit.

After a cute science demonstration involving Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes comes another tale of cousins, and the high point of the movie. The actor Alfred Molina eagerly awaits his meeting in an L.A. restaurant with British comedian Steve Coogan, star of 24 Hour Party People--after all, he's just discovered they're cousins! But the smug, self-absorbed Coogan is distinctly unimpressed with his award-winning relation--until a chance phone call changes his attitude. With Molina as his marvelous straight man, Coogan hilariously illustrates the ego clashes that can happen when the stars are not aligned.

The penultimate segment, entitled "Delirium," is indeed the most delirious of the bunch, thanks to the bizarre combo of rappers RZA and GZA (of The Wu-Tang Clan) and Bill Murray as their unexpected waiter. The sequence echoes some of the themes from the Tom Waits/Iggy Pop encounter--alternative medicine, the effects of caffeine--as Murray and the rap philosophers have a giddy improv showdown, The movie ends with a touching coda between two aging New York fringe actors, Bill Rice and Andy Warhol veteran Taylor Mead.

Though shot during three different decades with four different cinematographers, Coffee and Cigarettes still has a unified look, with recurring visual motifs such as overhead shots of checkerboard tables and, of course, plenty of coffee cups and cigarettes. The vignettes are also linked by such themes as minor addictions, obsessive compulsions and personal neuroses. This ongoing side project was clearly fun for the filmmakers, and most of the time that fun radiates from the screen.

-Kevin Lally