Film Reviews

Smoking Out a Story

Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) is a novelist who can't tell stories anymore, not since the tragic death of his beloved wife in a random act of street violence. So maybe it's as much out of envy as curiosity that he accepts the invitation when Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), the owner-proprietor of a cigar store in Paul's Brooklyn neighborhood, offers to share some of his own storytelling art.

At first, however, Paul doesn't know what to make of Auggie's magnum opus -- 14 albums of photographs taken over as many years, each offering a freeze-frame of the same street scene. Each morning, Auggie explains to his favorite customer, he sets up his camera at precisely the same spot at precisely the same time. Then -- snap!

"It just came to me," Auggie says. "It's my corner, after all. It's just one little part of the world, but things happen there, too. Just like everywhere else."

Well, yes. Maybe. But as he impatiently pages through the albums, trying to be polite even as his eyes glaze over, Paul can't help wondering: what gives? What's the point?

Auggie smiles the conspiratorial smile of someone sharing a deep secret with a fellow artist. "You'll never get it," he tells Paul, "if you don't slow down, my friend."

That, in a beautifully succinct nutshell, is both the message and the method of Smoke, an extraordinarily engaging and uncommonly satisfying comedy-drama about the small details that add up to the big picture. Just as important, it's a none-too-subtle admonition to the audience: don't bother waiting for something to happen. Because, in this case, the dictum of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon has been stood on its head. Here, character is action. So just sit back and give yourself over to the movie. That's the best way to savor the amusing rhythms of its language, the vigorous swagger of its humor and the unexpected profundities of its epiphanies.

The closer Paul looks at Auggie's seemingly similar photographs, the easier it is for him to recognize revealing details, subtle shadings -- and, in one heart-wrenching instance, the kind of immortality in art that is cruelly denied in life. The longer we remain in the company of Auggie, Paul and all the vividly drawn and robustly acted characters who populate Smoke, the easier it is for director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Dim Sum) and novelist-turned-screenwriter Paul Auster (The Music of Chance, Mr. Vertigo) to enchant us with their purebred shaggy-dog story.

Smoke is an episodic ensemble piece, tartly spiced with a touch of William Saroyan here, a dab of Eugene O'Neill there -- don't worry, it's never quite that heavy -- and a light sprinkling of Damon Runyon throughout. The script is loosely based on Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, an acclaimed short story that Auster originally wrote for, no kidding, the op-ed page of the New York Times. Wang and the author have artfully expanded the original narrative, significantly increasing the cast of characters without diluting the quirkily anecdotal appeal of the original.

Auggie's cigar store is the central location, but it isn't the only point of interest. The movie also shuffles over to Paul's apartment, where the blocked author offers a safe haven to Rashid (newcomer Harold Perrineau Jr.), a loquacious black teenager who can reinvent his past each time he introduces himself to a new person. (In the world of Smoke, everybody is a storyteller.) Later, the scene shifts to a service station in upstate New York, where Rashid tries to make contact with a father (Forest Whitaker) who may hate himself more than he could ever love a son.

The easygoing Auggie might seem much more capable of handling parental responsibilities. But the cigar-store philosopher is caught entirely off-guard when his brassy ex-wife (Stockard Channing) shows up after 18 years to announce he has a daughter he never knew about. At least, she thinks Auggie is the father. (That's her story, anyway, and she's sticking to it.) In any case, the troubled young woman (Ashley Judd in a striking one-scene cameo) is a full-blown crackhead who's down and out in an inner-city tenement. And she's none too eager to be saved by anyone, especially a father she's never met.

In synopsis, Smoke might sound like it has too much plot for two movies. (Actually, there is a second film -- Wang, Auster and Keitel enjoyed working together so much that, after completing Smoke, they dashed off a companion piece, the largely improvised Blue in the Face, in just five days. It should arrive in theaters later this year.) On-screen, however, nothing seems forced or schematic; everything feels relaxed and natural. The very randomness of what happens -- which, to be sure, is more apparent than real -- is what provides the suspense and narrative momentum. (In this, director Wang reveals a kinship with such masters of meticulously calculated happenstance as Ozu and Bresson.) The various strands of the story are ingeniously looped and intertwined, and the characters continually surprise the audience and themselves while they sort through the tangles.

Much like the current The Bridges of Madison County, a picture that it resembles in no other significant way, Smoke is the work of filmmakers who aren't afraid to take their time. The movie abounds in grace notes and small pleasures. For me, the two best moments are practically dialogue-free: Rashid, the runaway and budding con artist, and Paul, the newly unblocked writer, sit together watching a baseball game on a battered TV set, silently enjoying each other's company; later, in the wake of an emotionally and physically violent confrontation, two men cap off a picnic lunch, and quietly end their hostilities, with a couple of good cigars. (It should be noted, by the way, that just about everybody smokes in Smoke, and that likely will upset some people. Well, too bad for them.)

Defying politically correct notions about what's good for you isn't the only way that this marvelous movie manages to be subversive. In a summer-blockbuster season when pell-mell pacing and instant gratification are all that most mainstream entertainments have to offer, Smoke speaks in a clear, quiet voice to our hearts and minds about the things that really matter: redemption, forgiveness, responsibility, the magic of words, the quiet delights of a new friendship, the ineffable appeal of a really good cigar.

Better still, Smoke also manages to be very funny -- sometimes gently, sometimes raucously -- in the bargain. The actors appear to be having a great time. And they, like the characters they portray, take obvious delight in their own ability to tell stories that are at once deeply affecting and hugely entertaining. Their cheer is highly contagious.

Directed by Wayne Wang. With Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Harold Perrineau Jr.

Rated R.
112 minutes.

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Joe Leydon