“A Coffee in Berlin” takes a couple of shots at both low and high art as it chronicles the mild misadventures of its 20-ish protagonist, Niko (Tom Schilling). One scene takes place on a movie set, where a kitschy, tasteless melodrama about the Holocaust is being shot. Another involves a performance art piece that is like a bad parody of Pina Bausch. So where does that leave this coming-of-age comedy written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster? Somewhere in the middle, lukewarm and inoffensive, trying hard not to be plebeian or pretentious.
At his best, Woody Allen is the master of walking that line and achieving an appealing, sometimes giddy balance. François Truffaut, too. “Coffee” evokes unflattering comparisons to both. Shot in black and white like “Manhattan,” with bland jazz on the soundtrack, it tours the less familiar reaches of Berlin, evoking a bit of gritty atmosphere, but not enough to make you forget Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire.” Niko is less like Allen’s sardonic, self-effacing Isaac in “Manhattan” than he is like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel — the dull Doinel of the later films “Bed & Board” and “Love on the Run.”
Niko’s problem is not just that he’s spoiled and lazy, but that he’s a wimp about it. He only maintains viewer sympathy because everyone else in the film is so obnoxious. Except, perhaps, for the attractive woman he walks out on at the beginning of the film. But even in her few minutes on screen she shows signs of being clingy, needy, and passive aggressive.
From that point on, Niko’s episodic, sad-sack story grows increasingly pathetic, his antagonists more and more abusive, nutty, and bullying, with Niko an unchanging mope. There’s the snide and officious psychologist who determines that Niko, busted for DUI, is still not ready to have his license renewed. The alpha male father who cuts off Niko’s allowance when he learns that his son has been lying to him about attending law school. The creepy upstairs neighbor who wants Niko for some good times in his basement man cave.
One scene, though, offers a glint of inspiration. Idling in an apartment as his hipster friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) scores some drugs, Niko chats with the dealer’s grandmother. The gesture is unexpected and illuminating. Also, some dramatic movement stirs when the erstwhile “Roly Poly Julia” (Friederike Kempter) — a former schoolmate whom Niko once teased because of her weight — re-enters his life. Will Niko shake his narcissism, emphasized by the film’s many reflective surfaces, and take an interest in something other than his own solipsistic namby-pambiness?
Julia, by the way, is one of the participants in the performance piece shown earlier. By the end of the film that production seems like it might be a more entertaining and enlightening experience than Gerster’s decaffeinated “Coffee.”
“A Coffee in Berlin” trailer:
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.