Smoke Movie Review

When you sit in the theater, staring up at the big screen, during the first few minutes of Smoke, you know you're watching an "Art Movie." Smoke obviously has no misgivings about its place in the film chain, being perhaps the best example of a pure character-driven drama to come along in ages.

The sketchy plotline defies explanation. Basically, Smoke is the lazy, drawn-out story of a smoke shop owner, Auggie (Harvey Keitel), his estranged lover (Stockard Channing), a favorite patron/novelist, Paul (William Hurt), and the young man who saves his life (newcomer Harold Perrineau). As $5,000 is kicked around among these characters, their lives interact in unpredictable ways. Sometimes this is interesting, often it's just tiresome.

Director Wayne Wang (of The Joy Luck Club) has taken a story in the vein of Twenty Bucks and basically dragged the comedy out of it in favor of giving us a talky melodrama. The slow and deliberate pacing of this film can't be stressed enough. Auggie himself points this out as Paul flips through his photo album: a series of pictures of the same street corner, one taken each morning at 8 a.m. Paul says he doesn't "get it." Auggie replies, "You'll never get it if you don't slow down." Wang himself explains that this scene is "the heart of the film."

That's a fine sentiment for an art gallery, but the last time I checked, variable-speed movie projectors were still not in heavy use. You can't slow down a film. It has a natural pace, and Wang has imposed an impossible gait on what could have been a memorable movie.

It's a shame too, because at the heart of Smoke are some genuine characters with excellent actors behind them. Smoke is not only a reference to the cigar store, but it's a metaphor for the fleetness of life, happiness, and prosperity. (You have to see one scene--the world's most dysfunctional picnic--to really digest this fully.)

In the end, sitting around, pontificating, smoking, and acting cool can only carry a movie so far. Maybe if Wang worked on entertaining the audience instead of experimenting with format, this film would have been a smoother smoke.


Smoke Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1995


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