Give this hard-to-get-a-grip-on mood piece points for taking a major dare. Writer Paul Auster (The Music of Chance) and director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) have made a movie about how people talk. They expect us to listen and to note intonation, body language, false notes and hidden meaning. It sounds like an effort, but it’s not. For all the meandering, Smoke is a sharply observant and witty film that plumbs unexpected depths of feeling.
Harvey Keitel heads a first-rate cast as Auggie Wren, the owner of a cigar store in Brooklyn where the film’s characters congregate. For the past 14 years, Auggie has been taking a photo every day from the same vantage point in front of his store. Customer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a novelist whose wife has been killed in a bank robbery, doesn’t understand what the photos mean. Auggie tells him to take his time, it’ll add up. The same goes for the film.
The characters begin to accumulate like Auggie’s pictures. Paul is saved from a hit-and-run by a black teen-ager who calls himself Rashid (Harold Perrineau). The boy stashes a bag containing $5,000 in Paul’s apartment and heads upstate to find Cyrus (Forest Whitaker), the father who deserted him as a child. Back at the cigar store, Auggie gets a surprise visit from old flame Ruby McNutt (Stockard Channing in fine, feisty form), a blonde in a black eye patch who tells a disbelieving Auggie that they had a daughter, Felicity (Ashley Judd), who is now a crack addict living nearby.
Characters break connections and form new ones as the brilliant cinematographer Adam Holender (Midnight Cowboy, Fresh), moving from long shots to close-ups, draws us deeper into these parallel lives. Auggie’s final monologue — superbly delivered by Keitel — is taken from a Christmas story that Auster wrote for the New York Times in 1990. Those immune to the film’s sly strategy will think the story comes from nowhere. Others will revel in the ending’s emotional resonance. There’s magic in it.