Friday June 9, 1995
The Brooklyn cigar store run by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) in "Smoke" is Schmooze Central for the neighborhood gabbers and ne'er-do-wells. Auggie presides over the fray like a particularly indulgent bartender. He massages the foibles of his regulars.
Pokey and episodic, "Smoke" is a lovely slow stroll with a few of those regulars. The screenwriter, Paul Auster, embellishing a short-short story of his that originally appeared as a Christmas Day op-ed piece in the New York Times, employs the film medium as an extension of his literary art. With director Wayne Wang, he's worked out a series of set pieces that play like resonant enigmatic doodles.
Auster on film doesn't always work. The last attempt, "The Music of Chance," was a hollow/hip exercise. Auster is a sly storyteller, though, and in "Smoke" he makes the deflations part of the movie's texture. A lot of dramatic stuff impends but nothing builds to a crescendo; time and again we're gently brought back to a bemused anticlimax.
Auster and Wang divide the film into five distinct yet overlapping stories. The divisions aren't really necessary, but they impose a structure on what is essentially structureless. What ties everything together--at least as a visual motif--is smoking. The characters in this movie at one time or another are all seen smoking cigars or cigarettes, especially when they are letting off steam or celebrating some new twist in the cosmos.
The cosmos have not been kind. Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) lives alone in a ratty apartment after the death of his wife in an act of street violence. Unproductive, morose, he befriends a 17-year-old street kid who calls himself Rashid (Harold Perrineau), allowing him to stay for a few days in his home. Cast out into the street once more, Rashid, on the run from local toughs, follows up a tip on the whereabouts Upstate of his long-lost father (Forest Whitaker). Auggie is visited by an old flame, Ruby (Stockard Channing), who wears an eye patch and claims they had a daughter (Ashley Judd) 18 years ago who is now a pregnant crack addict.
All this may sound garish, but Wang, who overdosed on suds with "The Joy Luck Club," doesn't force anything here. The miseries are gently displayed; they're accepted as a part of life, just as the occasional outbursts of delight are. "Smoke" doesn't go very deep, but it's pleasantly ruminative. Its characters are trying to make some sense out of the passing parade without being trampled by it.
A key scene comes when Auggie shows Paul his photo album collection--photos taken in front of his store at the same hour every day for 14 years. At first the albums seem like a great sick jest. But, from photo to photo, Wang allows us to savor the subtle changes in mood and composition. At first Paul quickly flips through the snapshots but Auggie cautions him by saying, "You'll never get it unless you slow down." This could also stand as the movie's motto. It needs to be savored.
The actors get into the slowness. They're uniformly wonderful in a minor key. In her brief, explosive cameo, Ashley Judd tears into the mellow mood with acetylene-torch force. (The film needs her boost of rage.) Keitel gives another of his superb, detailed character turns; we can see in the way Auggie moves about his store or drags on his cigarette a whole history of dreams deferred. Hurt plays Paul as closed off yet frighteningly open to upset. Paul is the official storyteller of the piece but it's really Auggie and Rashid and Ruby who are the cleverest and most upsetting tall-talers. (Rashid is like a blood brother to the young con man in "Six Degrees of Separation," and Channing's presence in the film--she starred in the movie adaptation of John Guare's play--reinforces the connection.)
Wang brings us gradually closer to these people, moving from master shots to, finally, immense close-ups. It's a rather simplistic technique, but it works here. It respects our hesitancy in getting too close to these people too soon.
"Smoke" is as illusory as a smoke screen and just about as wispy. But, like Auggie's photo albums, it bears watching. It's a sweet, forlorn little snapshot.
Smoke, 1995. R, for language. A Miramax Films presentation. Director Wayne Wang. Producers Greg Johnson, Peter Newman, Hisami Kuroiwa and Kenzo Horikoshi. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Satoru Iseki. Screenplay by Paul Auster. Cinematographer Adam Holender. Editor Maysie Hoy. Costumes Claudia Brown. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Kalina Ivanov. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Harvey Keitel as Auggie Wren. William Hurt as Paul Benjamin. Harold Perrineau as Rashid Cole. Stockard Channing as Ruby McNutt.