Comedy works more than character in ‘Coffee in Berlin’

You wouldn’t think it would be hard to find a single cup of coffee in all of Berlin, but this is the kind of day Niko (played by Tom Schilling) is having. Nothing else is going too well either, but Niko’s foiled attempts to get some java give this film the repetitive structure of a classic frustration dream.

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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