Blue in the Face

What a bold notion for a movie, and what a bust in terms of execution. Writer Paul Auster and his co-director Wayne Wang had such a fine time filming Smoke, the summer art-house hit that revolved around the eccentric characters in a Brooklyn, N.Y., tobacco shop run by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), that they prevailed upon Miramax Films to let them make a second movie using the same setup.

The deal was they'd shoot it cheap and in five days. Keitel would be back with some of the original cast (Mel Gorham, Giancarlo Esposito, the great Victor Argo) and name newcomers such as Roseanne, Lily Tomlin, Michael J. Fox, Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, RuPaul and Madonna. Oh, yeah, there would be no script this time. Auster and Wang would provide comic situations around which the actors could improvise until they were blue in the face. You get the drift.

Great, huh? Try grating. It takes about 10 minutes for the novelty to wear off. Then you start grabbing for fleeting moments of pleasure: Gorham practicing being sexy in the mirror, Argo warbling a country song, Jarmusch enjoying one last cigarette before he quits, Lou Reed being Lou Reed. Fleeting is the operative word. When these characters start talking at length without the benefit of Auster, the novelist "The Music of Chance, Mr. Vertigo," whose script for Smoke was a model of artful construction, you want to run for the nearest exit. Tomlin is a whiz at improv, but her role as the Belgian Waffle Man, complete with facial and chest hair, is a hand-me-down conceit. Fox has an extended monologue that defines the word strained. Then there's Roseanne. My admiration for her TV show remains undimmed after seven seasons — its writing has the toughest core of wit and intelligence on the tube. But Blue leaves Roseanne rudderless. She plays a wronged wife who harangues her husband with a crass invective that grows more shrill with each "fuck you."

Reportedly the directors held up cards that read boring or faster or lighten up or get to the point. It's too bad the actors didn't pay attention. Look for Madonna, though, who turns up to deliver a singing telegram. Her performance is nothing to shout about, but her appearance marks the end of the movie and the audience's misery.