Smoke

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

Smoke is one of the best slice of life character studies that has come along in quite a while. Director Wayne Wang (Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club), uses a slow and insightful directors style, enabling his skilled cast to present a wonderful ensemble performance.

Smoke refers to the cigar shop in Brooklyn run by Harvey Keitel (The Piano, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), who plays Auggie Wren, owner, storyteller and a complex decent guy. Auggie is the magnet for the various people coming in and out of his shop, talking and revealing aspects of their lives.

It was a pleasure watching Keitel not play a gangster or deranged person, because he is such a multi-layered actor. In Smoke he displays a wide range of deep feelings in an understated manner. It’s as if he is comforting just to look at.

Coming into the shop to buy cigars is William Hurt (Body Heat, The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman), as Paul Benjamin. He is a novelist who lost his wife to random gun fire during a robbery four years earlier. Since that time he has not been able to complete another novel. Within his despair is a shining curiosity which comes alive when a young black man played by first time actor Harold Perrineau saves Hurt from walking into a speeding truck.

Hurt takes Perrineau (Rashid) back to his small apartment and offers him some floor space to sleep on for a few nights. Rashid tells him stories (or puts up smoke-the films metaphor for words that obscure understanding) about his true identity. For these two men, a bond begins.

Rashid has just found out from his aunt that his real father is living in up-state New York and running a car repair business. He takes off to see who his real father is. This brings in another fantastic actor, Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game, Bird), as Cyrus Cole. He has no idea that this smart seventeen year old man is his son. Whitaker gives the boy a job cleaning the room above the garage.

Whitaker has a hook on one arm from a car accident in which he was driving while drunk. This accident resulted in his wife getting killed. He tells Rashid how God is punishing him with this hook as a daily reminder.

Later during an emotional scene, Whitaker lights up the screen with great intensity and feeling. After this incredible outburst, Keitel and Hurt (they drove up to force Rashid to tell his father the truth), and Whitaker and his new wife and young son, along with Rashid just sit around a picnic table in complete silence.

The audience has a nervous laugh, because the suspended moment says more about people coming to grips with real life than any thousand word monologue. This scene was another example of slow and faithful directing; a non-mechanical skill in which you feel the humanity of your characters and trust them to display–not say what is going on.

One reason this movie was so unique and inviting was due to exquisite writing from famed novelist and poet Paul Auster. He writes his characters without any judgment giving each person a textured and complex persona. Then he has these people intersecting with each other and in the process a profound decency emerges.

The two women in the ensemble had brief but very strong performances. Stockard Channing emerges as Auggie’s ex-lover from eighteen years earlier. She has an unexplained patch on one eye. She gets Auggie to visit her daughter who is strung out on crack. They walk in this disgusting apartment where Ashley Judd launches into a riveting and angry drugged out diatribe against her mother.

In many quality films there is a reoccurring prop, such as a sword in King Arthur or gun in Dirty Harry. In Smoke we get to watch the men blow cigar and cigarette smoke in-between talking and listening. We watch Channing with her eye patch. Wang’s use of props adds coherence to the characters.

Wang says, “In Smoke, the multicultural blend is found both behind and in front of the camera. This is probably the first film that has a Chinese director, a Jewish writer and black, Spanish and Caucasian actors. Paul and I always wanted to make a movie that was multicultural in a very natural way. Not dealing with it politically, but just working against the stereotypes.

They succeeded in a way that reminded me of the best of my New York upbringing. This is a very satisfying film because the focus is on character, the spoken and hidden word, and feelings. Most important, the central theme explores the irony of life. This is a terrific film which I strongly recommend.