Wayne Wang's astonishing little film Smoke sneaks up on the viewer in wonderful ways. Superficially, it's a "slice of life"--half a dozen related slices, actually--about the people who frequent a Brooklyn cigar store in 1990. But just underneath a deceptively simple surface, we come upon serious matters: the need to reinvent the self and the healing power of families; the magnetism of storytelling and the redemption in talk.
That Wang and novelist/screenwriter Paul Auster are able to explore such themes without raising their voices or seeming pretentious is tribute to their own narrative skills--and a shared ability to, well, blow a little smoke. Nothing is quite what it seems here--not a crumpled lunch bag containing $6,000, not a runaway teenager who calls himself Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.), not a blocked novelist (William Hurt) grieving for his murdered wife, not a shipment of illegal Cuban cigars, not even the story one friend tells another about a Christmas Day he once spent with a lonely old woman. Director Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and writer Auster (The Music of Chance) transform and illuminate these connected elements as if by magic.
Credit also the superb cast. Aside from the smart, sweet-tempered newcomer Perrineau and the veteran Hurt, that consummate professional, Harvey Keitel, appears as Auggie, the smoke shop's garrulous proprietor, whose pivotal "life's work" has been photographing the same street corner every day for years. Stockard Channing pops in as Auggie's blowsy, long-lost love, who bears a startling tale about a drug-addicted daughter. Upstate, in a run-down auto repair shop, the movie finds Crying Game star Forest Whitaker as a guilt-ridden father who earns a chance to regain peace with a son.
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In contrast to most Hollywood films, Smoke proceeds circuitously, mysteriously even, on alternating waves of charm, pathos and comedy. The cumulative effect is, indeed, a bit like smoke invading the brain--pleasurable, unexpected, slightly disorienting. By the time the film's interlocking tales are told, we've experienced something special--something like the human comedy in its guises, now shrouded, now clear.