The cigarette, whose fall from grace is nearly complete, finds sanctuary in Smoke, director Wayne Wang's intricate and edgy new film. People light up as if it were still the 1950s, whether they're eating, talking, fighting, or pondering, and the entire movie flickers through a carcinogenic haze. The Brooklyn-dwelling characters of Smoke are a nervous lot; even more than beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking is the tic that refreshes them.
The novelist Paul Auster (The Music of Chance, Leviathan) wrote the screenplay for Smoke, and from his characters' frayed nerves he has woven a narrative web of literary fineness and symmetry. Smoke is an ensemble piece, a cunning braid of the countless points of random human intersection that make up a village.
A distracted anxiety permeates the film. One of the three main characters, a novelist named Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), is nearly run down by a truck at an intersection because he isn't paying attention to the traffic lights. (He hasn't paid attention to much of anything since his wife was murdered.) Only a last-second shove from a black teen-ager (Harold Perrineau Jr.) saves Paul.
The grateful writer takes the boy, who gives his name as Rashid, to a cafe and offers him a place to stay if he needs one. Rashid is plainly in some unnamed distress, but he is too sensitive about his still-tender identity as a man to admit that he needs help from an adult, and he joshingly dismisses the offer — only to show up unannounced at Paul's apartment some days later in hopes of reviving it.
But theirs is a misbegotten cohabitation. Paul, like most writers, is achingly temperamental, impatient with noise and distraction and the mere presence of another person in his space. A few tense nights convince him that Rashid must leave. Chin up, the boy accepts his dismissal.
Soon a woman appears at Paul's door in search of an AWOL teen she calls Thomas. After a bristling moment, she and Paul conclude that Rashid and Thomas are the same person. She is Thomas' aunt; the boy's mother is dead, she tells Paul, and his father walked out on him 12 years ago. Thomas lives with her — in the projects, not in Manhattan, as he had told Paul; he goes to public school, not the Trinity School.
When Rashid unexpectedly returns, Paul confronts him with these whoppers, and the boy spills most of the tale of how he became a fugitive. He witnessed two gangbangers holding up a store, he tells Paul; he recognized them and they him, and he cannot return to his neighborhood because they would certainly kill him. The weary but decent Paul, a man hungry for intimacy and a natural teacher in search of someone to teach, arranges a job for Rashid at the cigar store of his friend Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel).
Momentarily, all is well, until Rashid, preoccupied by a girlie magazine, lets an unattended water tap flood the store, causing not only thousands of dollars in damage but imperiling Auggie's deal for a shipment of Cuban cigars. Rashid makes amends by giving Auggie a paper bag stuffed with $5,000 in cash — the proceeds of the gang heist he witnessed. (His picking up the bag was a detail he omitted from his confession to Paul, who ended up finding the money anyway, stashed behind a row of books.)
The bag of hot cash changes hands repeatedly throughout the film, each time offering some prospect of renewal to both giver and receiver. Rashid, freed of his burden, flees upstate in search of his father, Cyrus (Forest Whitaker), who runs an auto garage. The boy gets out of town just as the gangbangers pay a late-night visit to Paul and seriously rough him up.
Auggie, meantime, encounters his long-lost lady friend, Ruby (Stockard Channing, in major lipstick), who claims that their long-ago liaison produced a daughter, Felicity (Ashley Judd), now a crackhead mother-to-be who lives with an ominous man called Chico. Their visit to the misnamed Felicity is the nastiest scene in the film. Judd sets her mouth in a sweet smile, but its warmth is the heat of hatred, and every word she spews at Auggie and Ruby is rotten with contempt. She gleefully reports that she's had an abortion.
Upstate, Rashid is playing cat-and-mouse with Cyrus, who doesn't recognize him. Rashid identifies himself to his father as “Paul Benjamin” — a perfectly serviceable alias until the real (and battered) Paul Benjamin, accompanied by Auggie, rolls up in a garish red Eldorado to sort it all out.
The fistfight that precipitates Rashid's reconciliation with his father is one of those flashes of rawness that find power in their very infrequency. But the movie sounds its muted notes with equal conviction.
For 4,000 consecutive mornings, each day at the same time, Auggie has set up his camera on its tripod and taken a picture of the corner outside his store. Winter or summer, rain or shine, he has assembled a kind of record of the life at that corner of Brooklyn where he has lived so much of his own life.
Under a cloud of cigarette smoke, he shows Paul the albums in which the photographs are displayed. Paul loves the idea of the project, but the individual photos bore him, and he hastily flips through them, thinking that they're all the same. They are all the same, Auggie agrees, trying to get him to slow down, yet each is slightly different, like snowflakes. Then Paul comes across a snapshot of his murdered wife — a shadow of her, cheerfully unaware of the camera — and he disintegrates.
Smoke, whose images range from a father and son brawling in the dirt to a bewildered widower sitting forlornly at a kitchen table, manages to be thoughtful, funny, horrifying, and sad with the same chaotic fluency as life itself, and the film's small nuances of character, affectingly rendered, have their own stories to tell.
Shattuck in Berkeley.