There’s plenty of smoke but not a great deal of fire in “Smoke,” which unites the talents of director Wayne Wang and cult novelist Paul Auster, who provides his first original screenplay. Basically a repeat of the “Short Cuts” formula, very specifically set in Brooklyn, and with an extremely vibrant and interesting cast, episodic pic is pleasant but insubstantial. It should open well in specialized theaters but has almost no chance of significant crossover business.
As he demonstrated in his previous film, “The Joy Luck Club,” Wang can inject strong emotion into an episodic screenplay given strong basic material. Auster, whose only previous screen work was his adaptation of his novel “The Music of Chance,” has written a script that flirts with interesting ideas and characters but contains too many loose ends and builds to an underwhelming is-that-all-there-is climax.
Most of the 15 or so characters in the film, which unfolds during the summer of 1990, hang out at the Brooklyn Cigar Store, which is managed by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) on behalf of the owner, Vinnie (Victor Argo). Pic is divided into five chapters, each bearing the name of a character, though the main characters straddle every segment.
Chapter one, “Paul,” features William Hurt as Paul Benjamin, a novelist still grieving after the death of his wife, who was shot during a bank holdup. While walking on the street, he’s saved from being hit by a truck by the intervention of a black teenager who calls himself Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.), and Paul is so grateful he offers the boy accommodation for a couple of nights.
In chapter two, “Rashid,” Paul gets a visit from Rashid’s concerned aunt and discovers his real name is Thomas Cole, and that he’s only just learned that his presumed dead father is alive and living outside the city. Rashid tracks down his father, Cyrus Cole (Forest Whitaker), who operates a run-down garage and gives his name as Paul Benjamin. Meanwhile, Auggie’s ex, Ruby (Stockard Channing), turns up after more than 18 years’ absence and informs him their daughter is a pregnant crack addict. Rashid reveals to Paul that he’s gotten hold of nearly $ 6,000, the proceeds of a bank robbery executed by a black mobster known as the Creeper.
Chapter three, “Ruby,” has little to do with Ruby. Paul gets Rashid a job in Auggie’s cigar store, but the youth carelessly allows $ 5,000 worth of Cuban cigars to be destroyed; he offers Auggie the stolen cash as penance. Meanwhile, Paul meets April Lee (Mary Ward) and they go out on a date where they meet Auggie and his g.f., the fiery Violet (Mel Gorham). Paul gets beaten up by the Creeper, and Auggie gives Ruby, who confesses that he might not after all have been the father of her daughter, the $ 5,000.
Next comes “Cyrus,” in which Rashid reveals his true identity to his father and, finally “Auggie,” in which Auggie tells Paul a Christmas story involving a thief, a missing wallet and an old blind woman.
The problem with Auster’s likable but unremarkable screenplay is that it too often goes off on a tangent with unessential anecdotes and then fails to deliver in more important areas. Too many characters are introduced and then simply abandoned, notably Ruby’s daughter and the likable April Lee, who gets only a couple of scenes.
There’s plenty of amusing detail to flesh out the narrative, but Auster’s dialogue isn’t terribly witty, and the climactic Christmas story Auggie tells Paul, which is re-enacted in black-and-white behind the end credits, is a real fizzer that provides the film’s anticlimactic ending. Nevertheless, Wang has done a polished job with the material, and keeps the pacing brisk.
Hurt gives another subdued performance, but it’s Keitel, extremely relaxed as Auggie, who gives the film most of its charm. Channing, defaced by a black eye patch, has little to do as Ruby, Perrineau is winning as Rashid, and Whitaker gives a characteristically emotional performance as his long-lost father, who has lost an arm in an unspecified accident.
Adam Holender’s on-location cinematography is first class, and Rachel Portman’s sweet music is a major asset, as is the use of the Tom Waits song “You’re Innocent When You Dream” over the end credits. As the title suggests, vast quantities of cigarettes and cigars are smoked during the picture.