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Chaos is their cup of java

The `Caffeine' cast looks great, but the comedy's misadventures are hard to swallow.

March 16, 2007|Lael Loewenstein | Special to The Times

"There's always something strange brewing at the Black Cat Cafe," warns the tagline for "Caffeine." Something strange indeed: a dead rat, a condom wrapper and a pair of soiled trousers are among the eclectic ingredients in this regrettable indie concoction. Detailing the sexual and romantic misadventures of the employees and patrons at a London cafe, "Caffeine" is about as appetizing as a pot of dishwater coffee.

Dishwater coffee, that is, served in an attractive vessel, for "Caffeine's" handsome cast includes Mena Suvari ("American Pie"), Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy") and British starlet Marsha Thomason ("The Haunted Mansion").

Thomason plays cafe manager Rachel, who, as the film opens, dumps her longtime boyfriend Charlie (Callum Blue), the chef, for cheating. Without a cook, the waiters make the best out of a bad situation: Tom (Mark Pellegrino) tries to serve two-day-old lasagna, Dylan (Breckin Meyer) tries to comfort the devastated Rachel, and Vanessa (Suvari in a wobbly British accent) tries to keep the peace.

Things get hectic during lunch hour when the coffeehouse swells with customers. Among them: Danny (Mike Vogel) and Mike (Andrew Lee Potts), a pair of stoners lamenting past relationships and lost opportunities; a polite blond (Heigl) on a blind date with a sexist lug (Daz Crawford), a seemingly proper woman (Sonya Walger) with a secret history in adult entertainment; and a pair of well-dressed gents, John and David (Andrew Ableson and Mark Dymond, respectively), one of whom is concealing a fetish from his fiancee (Jules Leyser).

Dean Craig's script interweaves those and other plot lines, moving from couple to couple in an attempt to up the ante with embarrassing revelations (David likes to wear panties!), misdirected suspicions (the mystery condom wrapper!) and disastrous encounters (Mike soils his trousers then sees his ex!).

But as directed by John Cosgrove in his feature debut, there really is no ante. With few exceptions, the characters are so unlikable that it's difficult to feel any emotional investment. Performances are generally in the one-to-two-note range: Pellegrino preens; Meyer whines; Suvari rolls her kohl-lined eyes.

It's too bad, because with better material these are able actors. (Casting credit goes to Johanna Ray, a David Lynch colleague said to have "discovered" Naomi Watts). Suvari notwithstanding, the Americans convincingly affect their English roles. The film, which is shot almost entirely indoors, could have used some exterior shots to give it a more authentic British feel, not to mention a less theatrical and claustrophobic quality. Instead of costly location photography, some well-placed stock footage would have helped to establish a sense of place.

But a few London street scenes would hardly compensate for "Caffeine's" comic misfires. Craig tosses in the scatological jokes presumably to cater to a younger audience, hence the references to the soiled trousers and missing condom. The dead rat doesn't merit an explanation.


"Caffeine." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

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