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Smoke

Rated R, 112 min. Directed by Wayne Wang, Paul Auster. Starring William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau, Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito, Ashley Judd, Victor Argo.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 30, 1995

As beguiling and as ephemeral as its titular namesake, Smoke is a movie that draws you in and lingers a while in your bloodstream. It's certainly not harmful to your system but like those darned cigarettes, Smoke leaves you wanting another not long after the last one has been extinguished. Knockout ensemble performances like these don't come around all that often, though, and when they do they ought to be savored. The performances here are smokin'. On the other hand, the story that connects all these characters is a bit wan. The movie is structured as a series of converging vignettes; however, these story lines never converge as completely as one might like. Smoke's anchor is the Brooklyn tobacco shop run by affable but no-nonsense Auggie Wren (Keitel). Everyone comes into the shop sooner or later. Down-on-his-luck writer Paul Benjamin (Hurt) is one of the regulars. And in the flick of an eye, into Paul's life comes Rashid (Perrineau). Rashid's on his own journey but hangs around long enough to become family and work for Auggie in the tobacco shop, but his path also takes him upstate to check in with Cyrus Cole (Whitaker), who is a story unto himself. Ruby McNutt (Channing), Auggie's old flame, also comes to the tobacco shop on a mission. So many of these people have been damaged by life: Ruby wears an eye patch to cover her missing eye; Cyrus wears a prosthetic arm that reminds him of his misdeeds; Paul has been so shocked by life that he moves with the grace of the walking dead; and from a blind old woman who is introduced near the movie's end, Auggie discovers the true spirit of Christmas. It is this closing story that Auggie relates in a long monologue, that was the genesis for this movie: it was a Christmas story that writer Paul Auster published on the op-ed page of the New York Times on Christmas Day, 1990. The story is a good one but it fails to bring the movie full circle. In a slice-of-life story like this, well-rounded smoke rings may not be necessary. Yet, obviously there were more stories to tell here since while Smoke was being shot, director Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and Auster spun off another film, Blue in the Face , that shot in the three days following the completion of Smoke. The improvised Blue in the Face is said to features players like Roseanne, Lily Tomlin, Michael J. Fox, Madonna, Jim Jarmusch, Lou Reed, and, of course, Harvey Keitel. Can't wait: even if it never all comes together, the fumes are quite intoxicating.
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