SMOKE is a touching set of interrelated stories somewhat
reminiscent of SHORT CUTS. The central theme in the movie is taking
life slow enough to get to know your fellow man. The title and the
foci of the movie is the smoke shop in Brooklyn owned by Auggie Wren
(Harvey Keitel). The visual link of all of the characters is the
casual smoking among them as they take the time to get to know each
other. The exquisite direction is by Wayne Wang who was responsible
for THE JOY LUCK CLUB and DIM SUM.
I want to state my prejudice up front. I am violently antismoking
having never had a cigarette touch my lips, but having lived with
parents who smoked like chimneys rotting out their lungs until they
gave it up 10 years ago. I complain frequently in my reviews about how
Hollywood shows more smoking that happens in the real world and how
they have too much gratuitous smoking in the movies. Nevertheless, the
smoking in this almost documentary feeling movie was natural, and I had
no problem with any scene in it.
The smoke shop is frequented by Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) plus
many excellent minor characters. They spend a lot of time in talk
fests a la MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. Unlike that film, the camera work in
this movie is a central part of its success. The camera frequently
will linger at the end of a scene with a close up of a character's
face. In the scene with Auggie's putative daughter Felicity (Ashley
Judd), it ends with Felicity giving a silent and yet so emotive and
natural series of expressions that several people in the audience burst
into tears. Similarly the camera angles enhanced Auggie's telling of
his strange Christmas story. In this scene, the camera slowly moved in
closer and closer until we saw every pore on Auggie's face and his nose
was about 6 feet tall on the screen. This gave the scene great
poignancy and drama.
The script by Paul Auster was the equal to Wang's direction.
Although the Christmas story was the best scene, the picture book one
was a close second. Auggie shows Paul a picture book that has exactly
one picture of the smoke shop made everyday at 8:00am from the same
vantage point. At first Paul is not impressed, but then Auggie points
out that each picture is the same yet if you take the time and look
close enough, you can see that they are all different. This is one of
the key messages of the movie. To further emphasize the point, the
background music is a slow piano playing a beautiful tone consisting
only of single staccato notes serving as a metaphor of the single
pictures. Highly effective.
William Hurt's acting in the movie may drive you crazy. His
speech rhythm and his overall pace is one half or less of that of the
other actors. I tried to accept it as yet another symbol of the taking
the time to smell the flowers theme. The acting by Keitel, Keitel's
ex-girlfriend, Ruby (Stockard Channing), the young man, Rashid/Thomas
Cole (Harold Perrineau Jr.), that Hurt befriends, and the young man's
father, Cyrus Cole (Forest Whitaker), was all top notch, but again, I
would give much of the credit to the director. This was a movie with a
strong director's stamp. He probably suggested Hurt adopt his slow and
methodic pace which was my only real problem with the movie.
The cinematography (Adam Holender) and the Brooklyn sets (Kalina
Ivanov) gave the movie a classic low budget feel. The script
frequently referred to "The Projects". The enunciation of the words
provoked sadness and desperation without Wang ever having to show us
the locales discussed. Many of the scenes and themes reminded me of
other wonderful movies I have seen. The theme of chance encounters
changing your whole life and spurring lifetime friendships was lifted
straight out of that great film, GRAND CANYON.
Finally, stay to the end as this movie features something I have
never seen before. After the credits start to roll, the movie
continues and the best series of scenes in the entire show occur.
Moreover, it provides a perfect ending and extremely upbeat mood for
you as you exit the theater.
SMOKE runs a surprising 2:05 since it feels much shorter. Somehow
the lingering editing by Maysie Hoy and Christopher Tellefsen manages
to make the picture seem shorter rather than longer, perhaps because it
captures your imagination so well. The movie is rated R, but it is the
softest R I have seen in quite a while. Other than a few uses of the F
word, the language is pretty clean, there is no violence or sex, and
the movie is extremely life affirming. Any teenager would be fine at
this movie. I recommend this delightful and sweet movie to you and
award it ***.
Copyright © 1995 Steve Rhodes