directed by Wayne Wang
(Miramax, 1995)

"If it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, it doesn't. You never know what's going to happen next. And the moment you think you do, that's the moment you don't know a thing. This is what we call a paradox."

Or so says Brooklyn cigar store owner Augie Wren (Harvey Keitel), about midway through Smoke, a 1995 film that tries very hard to make art of what happens to Wren and his best-known customer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt).

Together they have more adventures in 112 minutes than most people do in a lifetime, many of them inspired by a young African-American man, Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau Jr.) who all-but accidentally saves Benjamin's life.

As a reward, Benjamin offers Cole a place to stay. But Benjamin's not prepared to deal with Cole's baggage: A desperate need to find his long-lost father, who's just been spotted in nearby Peekskill; nearly $6,000 in small bills stashed in a paper bag Cole lifted from a pair of armed robbers; and Cole's bad habit of lying about his name, address and parentage.

But Benjamin has some baggage of his own: His career as a successful novelist has been on permanent hold since the random shooting death of his pregnant wife. And so does Wren, whose baggage turns up in the shapely shape of Ruby McNutt (Stockard Channing), who wants Wren to help her rehabilitate an 18-year-old crack addict who might or might not be his daughter.

With all this baggage, you might think Smoke is rather heavy viewing. But each of its principals has a dream as well, and the constant counterbalancing of dream and drama keeps the film on a fairly even keel -- perhaps too even.

Because for all its ideas, and all its ideals, Smoke is very flat, more artsy than artful and too contrived to be convincing.

Credit for the flatness must be shared by screenwriter Paul Auster, who gives his characters long speeches, and director Wayne Wang, who filmed them in long takes from long distances, giving Smoke the look of a filmed stage play.

That might work if the speeches crackled with razor-sharp dialogue or the characters tapped into one another when they speak. Instead, the dialogue gets bogged down in cliches (Wren: "There's no time like the present") and players recite their lines as if to move along the plot, rather than to move one another.

Certainly the film has its moments: Benjamin telling how Sir Walter Raleigh tried to weigh smoke; Wren spinning a bizarre Christmas yarn about his first camera; McNutt and Wren confronting the addict who might be Wren's daughter.

Auster's characters are quirky enough to catch our attention, and there's some interest generated by their conflicting notions of fate: Do things just happen to people, as Wren explains above, or does a higher power intervene, as Cole's father would have it? And there are enough plot twists to convince us that we are functioning in the realm of paradox.

But where there's smoke, there's supposed to be fire. Sadly, this Smoke doesn't have it.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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