Actors add substance to 'Smoke'

June 30, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Smoke" gets in your brain.

Witty, complex and brilliantly acted, the movie dances through permutations of personality and fate as it follows the tangled vectors of a group of customers who hang out at a Brooklyn cigar shop. Its best trick is that it's so entertainingly done it prevents you from noticing how trite it is.

Really, every character is a cliche. Auggie Wren, who owns the place, is a beloved stereotype of condescension-rich proletarian fiction, the working class blowhard wheeler-dealer who is a secret genius, with blazing talents for narrative, insight and compassion. Paul, the novelist who frequents Auggie's place in search of little Dutch cigars, is a disenchanted intellectual, haunted into classic writer's block by the pointless death of his wife in a robbery; Rashid, the young black man who comes into both their lives, seems to be an escapee from a road show production of "Six Degrees of Separation"; he turns out to be someone who's totally reinvented himself.

Add other insufferable conceits: these intermingled stories are separated by pretentious titles that signify we're moving in a new direction. This is high art movie hallmark, a banality wrapped inside an inanity. Then there's a "coda" to conclude the story, which inexplicably and preciously runs in black and white. Ugh.

But the movie works on the strength of its performances and the sturdiness of director Wayne Wang's craft. It's a very professional job; no pretentious camera angles, no self-indulgent, attention-milking cinematographic touches.

Wang encountered the source materials in the New York Times back in 1990. There, novelist Paul Auster had been asked by the editor of the op-ed page to write a Christmas piece. That essay, "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" inspired the screenplay that Auster and Wang collaborated on over a four-year period and it's the black-and-white coda to the piece.

Auggie Wren is played by the great Harvey Keitel at his most idiosyncratic: hugely fleshy, domineering, loud, even a little lovable. Auggie has larceny in his heart; he's always on the lookout for "deals," just a little thing to get him ahead. He's known far and wide as a storyteller and seems a fountain of folk wisdom.

Even better is William Hurt as Paul, the novelist (a clear substitute for Auster himself). Actually, the story is vainly structured around the writer's ego; its secret journey is Paul's return from despair to love, from isolation to society, and each episode is calculated to bring him back from the brink. But Hurt is such a restrained and intelligent actor he gets a lot more out of the role than seems to be there; his Paul never turns into one of those crucified intellectuals who turns the universe into a personal affront.

The "active" character is Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a young African-American runaway whose humanity is in conflict with his fraudulence. Perrineau is an extremely ingratiating character. His mysterious awkwardness and Hurt's wary reluctance make an intriguing relationship. He enters the writer's life by plucking him, lost in a daydream, out of the pathway of destruction by vehicle. What begins as a chance encounter eventually develops into an extremely persuasive relationship.

There are other, briefer, stories entwined: Auggie Wren's ex-wife and his long-lost daughter (a haggard-looking Stockard Channing and an even haggier Ashley Judd), Rashid's pursuit of his long-lost father (Forest Whitaker), and the two thieves who may have murdered Paul's wife and are hunting for Rashid.

Auster, best known for the novel and screenplay "The Music of Chance," is a connoisseur of small ironies and epiphanies. Indeed, the tiny scenes in "Smoke," such as meetings and gropings, work much better than the big dramatic numbers of reconciliation and redemption. But the movie, while not formally excellent, remains intriguing.

"Smoke"

Starring William Hurt and Harvey Keitel

Directed by Wayne Wang

Released by Miramax

Rated R (profanity, sexual inference)

***

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