Comedy works more than character in ‘Coffee in Berlin’
This running gag provides a nicely amusing through-line for “A Coffee in Berlin,” a low-budget slacker picture that scored big last year at the German box-office and won a batch of national film awards.
Niko's recently split from a girlfriend, and he quit law school a couple of years ago (a decision that has not prevented him from accepting his father's monthly stipend for expenses).
On this particular bad day, Niko's drifting includes a dressing-down when his dad finds out about the fraud, a few hours on the set of a melodramatic World War II film (his pal is an actor) and a strange encounter with an old schoolmate (Friederike Kempter) who's now a performance artist. The latter provides the most comic pay-off, as the formerly overweight woman cannot stop talking about her unhappy childhood or what a crush she had on Niko.
Writer-director Jan Ole Gerster reaches for significance at various moments between these skillfully-executed comic sequences, and here “A Coffee” tends to fall short. Maybe these reaches convey something culturally significant to Berliners; certainly the business about the bad WWII movie (it's about a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish woman) suggests the exhaustion surrounding the subject, and how any catastrophe eventually gets turned into kitsch.
The bland central role is also an issue; although Schilling is photogenic and well cast, there's not much to the character beyond blankness. Niko's reaction shots — invariably of the “how do I get out of this?” variety — constitute funny stuff, but the character's still more of a construct than a full-blooded individual.
Black-and-white cityscapes and a jazzy score indicate Gerster's debt to Woody Allen (Allen's reputation remains higher in Europe than here), but even this devotion suggests the movie's limitations. This is a pleasant way to spend 84 minutes, but the movie seems like the watered-down version of something stronger.
“A Coffee in Berlin” (three stars)
A slacker comedy that proved a big hit in Germany, about a young guy (Tom Schilling) at loose ends who has a crazy day in Berlin. The funny parts are well-played, although whenever director Jan Ole Gerster reaches for significance the movie comes up short. In German, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for subject matter
Opening: Friday at The Varsity Theatre in Seattle.
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