Wang's 'Smoke' creates an altar to the weightless soul

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Smoke: Directed by Wayne Wang, written by Paul Auster, and starring Harvey Keitel (Auggie Wren), William Hurt (Paul Benjamin), Harold Perrineau Jr. (Rashid Cole), Forrest Whitaker (Cyrus Cole), and Stockard Channing (Ruby McNutt).

In director Wayne Wang's new film, "Smoke," Paul Benjamin, the bemused and weary writer portrayed by William Hurt, explains that attempting to weigh the smoke from a cigar is as difficult as weighing one's soul. But he asserts that it can be done, and while the wispy tendrils cannot be seen or measured before the cigar is lit, their presence is nevertheless intrinsic to the commodity.

"Smoke" is set in contemporary New York and the story follows the twisting paths of irony that connect a group of characters. Each character struggles with a familial relationship that has somehow turned sour. Through their intermingling, emotional walls are threatened and souls are released.

One character is Auggie Wren, a tough but congenial owner of a small convenience shop. He fancies himself a photographer and adds another picture to his collection every day. Curiously, each photograph is taken from the same street corner at precisely 8 o'clock every morning. Auggie delights in comparing each photograph and noting the variations in lighting, seasons, and assorted pedestrians. While the setting remains constant, life continues to change.

One day, an old flame enters Auggie's store. Her name is Ruby McNutt and she informs Auggie that he is the father of her daughter, an 18-year-old drug addict. She asks for his help and Auggie must decide whether or not to get involved.

Paul Benjamin is a regular customer of Auggie's who was once a prolific writer, but the accidental death of his wife a few years earlier has left him creatively impotent and he searches for significance and inspiration. When a teenager, Rashid Cole , saves him from being hit by a car, the two strike up a friendship that instigates emotional healing in both of their lives.

Rashid discovers that his long-absent father, Cyrus Cole, owns a rundown gas station outside of town, so he seeks him out and, keeping his identity a secret, convinces his father to hire him. As an employee, Rashid learns that his father struggles with grief and self-hate stemming from a car accident years before that resulted in the death of Rashid's mother.

Wayne Wang, the acclaimed Chinese director of such films as "Eat a Bowl of Tea" and "The Joy Luck Club" directs the film in a stately and reflective manner. The camera rarely moves and the editing is deliberate and choosy. There are many long takes and frequently the camera draws slowly closer towards a character during extended, self-divulging monologues.

Visually, the unadorned style is reminiscent of someone like Jim Jarmusch or Whit Stillman, the director of last year's "Barcelona." For "Smoke," Wang collaborates with Stillman's editor, Christopher Tellefson the two create an attentive and observational mood that encourages the audience to sit back and enjoy the narrative intricacies like a smoker lost in reflection.

The film is a study of inner attitudes and its performances bristle with subtlety and nuance. Hurt portrays another of his troubled, quiet characters, but he gives Paul a wry sense of humor. When Auggie shows Paul his photo collection and asks him to look through them slowly, Paul wearily grins, "Why? They're all the same."

Harvey Keitel surprises with a softer and warmer role than he's done in recent years after earning popularity from playing squinty-eyed gangsters in films like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction."

The rest of the cast develop their characters with an eye for inner turmoil and belated emotional release. Ashley Judd, however, as Ruby's daughter, shocks with her vehement anger and bitterness during the brief scene she appears in.

"Smoke" is a complex film about the soulful thread that runs through family estrangement and the cathartic power of chance encounters and redeeming friendships. Its ability to create a mood of soft irony and pent-up frustrations gives it dramatic credibility and attention to the spirits of its characters. Even if you can't measure them.

"Smoke" is showing at Catalina Theaters, 881-0616.

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