Chinese Coffee

on September 11, 2000 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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   Basically a two-hander, "Chinese Coffee" has the usual defects of theatre that is turned into film. It never quite surmounts its stage origins.

   Based on Ira Lewis' 1983 play, "Chinese Coffee" is a dark night of the soul for two men. On a cold New York winter night in 1982, Harry Levine (Al Pacino), a twice-published novelist, drops by the apartment of his friend, Jake Manheim (Jerry Orbach), to get Jake's opinion of his new manuscript. Jake has read it but tells Harry he hasn't. The reasons why slowly come out as the men argue, accuse and, in effect, dissolve their frayed friendship.

   Strong on words but short on images, though its flashbacks are generally compelling, "Chinese Coffee" awkwardly tries to graft its thoughts on art, life and relationships, onto Lewis' flimsy structure. But the film, despite its often sharp dialogue and humorous interludes, feels incomplete and manipulative. And Pacino (who has played Harry on stage) and Orbach are both too old for their parts.

   The acting is strong, particulary Orbach's, whose intellectual Jake is every bit the writer that Harry is but who has chosen, inexplicably, not to do anything with his art. We haven't really seen his like on screen before. Harry, by contrast, is an overly familiar archetype, the starving writer for whom the work is all and who throws over lovers and friends in his bid for success. Pacino does his best, but Harry is someone who never quite jumps off the page. As the women in Harry and Jake's lives, Susan Floyd and Ellen McElduff, make the most of their paltry roles.

   "Chinese Coffee" is most touching in its delineation of the slow destruction of Harry and Jake's bonds. That's enough to make the film interesting, but not enough to make it a powerhouse.    Starring Al Pacino and Jerry Orbach. Directed by Al Pacino. Written by Ira Lewis. Produced by Michael Hadge, Larry Meistrich and Robert Salerno. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 94 min. Opens 2001.

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