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'Holy Smoke!' But No Fire

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000


    'Holy Smoke!' Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet star in "Holy Smoke!" (Miramax)
In an unintentionally accurate pitch, the posters for "Holy Smoke!" sell its lurid story of sex in the Australian Outback with a mock-up of a tabloid newspaper, whose teasing cover asks the rhetorical question, "Has writer-director Jane Campion gone too far?" The sad answer (all the sadder because of how far the once-talented Campion has sunk since "The Piano") is a resounding "yes." I base my unequivocal answer not merely on the humble opinion of yours truly but on the empirical evidence of sighs and groans at a preview screening. There's so much wrong with this movie (not the least of which is the exclamatory cutesiness of the title) that it's hard to know where to begin.

Let's begin at the beginning, which opens smart and tart enough before taking a sharp left turn into the slough of despond.

On holiday in India, a pair of young Aussie tourists played by Kate Winslet and Samantha Murray fall in with the wrong crowd, a bunch of starry-eyed, sari-clad Westerners in the thrall of a charismatic guru named Chidaatma Baba (Dhritiman Chaterji). While Prue (Murray) quickly identifies Baba's followers as "losers," Ruth (Winslet) has some sort of transcendent experience of "the real stuff" when the toadlike Svengali touches her on the forehead.

Rushing home to inform an alarmed Mummy and Daddy Barron (Julie Hamilton and Tim Robertson) of their baby's decision to stay in India, Prue gives a report of cult brainwashing and evil clutches that sends the family into a tizzy. Without hesitation they hire expensive "cult exiter" P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) while making plans to trick Ruth into coming home by telling her her father is dying.

So far so good.

Up to this point, "Smoke!" has been clever enough to avoid religious caricatures and pat answers about faith. Although Ruth's dramatic decision to join Baba (she actually dreams of marrying him) may suggest naiveteĽ to many viewers, her character, as played by Winslet, seems confident enough to know her own mind, and you may find yourself wondering whether the bizarre choice isn't the right one . . . for Ruth.

At least that's where Campion, with her co-writer and sister Anna, seem to be going with this: in the direction of a philosophical showdown. On the one hand you have an impressionable but basically levelheaded girl and on the other a worldly-wise but spiritually hollow older man, staged at the wonderfully named Australian locale of Mount Emu Farm, Wee Waa. For a minute it would appear that this will be no straight story of deprogramming (haven't we seen enough of those on movies of the week and prime-time news magazines anyway?). Here's the Campion sisters' promise: a film that questions our very assumptions about belief, a film in which an intelligent woman will be shown to give as good as she gets. Now that would be something else.

Unfortunately, it would not be "Holy Smoke!"

It's clear that P.J.'s mission – not to mention the movie – is doomed when P.J. (said to be the best in the business) acquiesces to an oral-sex quickie from Ruth's cheap sister-in-law (Sophie Lee) while his client is sleeping a few feet away. Next thing you know, P.J. (a Grecian Formula Buddy Love in mirror shades and cowboy boots) is shagging Ruth too. But what galls most is the mind-boggling sexism, which depicts Waters as the victim and both women as sexual predators.

Nearly as hard to swallow is Waters's flagrant unprofessionalism. How did someone this vain, insecure and undisciplined ever rise to the top of his field? (He's supposed to have 189 successful "exits" under his belt, with only a 3.5 percent recidivist rate, but the Barrons would do better to hire the Horse Whisperer for their daughter.) Of course the implausibility is only compounded by Campion and Campion's twisted view of female empowerment, which is actually some of the most retrograde, anti-woman poppycock this side of Russ Meyer.

In the climactic battle of the sexes, Ruth all too readily concedes that her weak little mind is no match for P.J.'s vast reservoir of psychobabble and dime store theology. As a last resort, she throws her booty against P.J., such a Rock of Gibraltar that he can't jump out of his creased blue jeans fast enough.

From this point on the movie lurches from unintentional (I think) hilarity to wincing discomfort. After several degrading scenes of lust and debasement – Ruth does the nasty with P.J. one minute, then dresses him in drag the next as a mocking parody of the kind of hag Ruth thinks he deserves – "Smoke!" ultimately collapses into a meaningless heap.

Watching a lipstick-smeared P.J. chase Ruth across the desert, his beer gut almost tearing the red cocktail dress she's left him in, is not a pretty sight. But the real question at that point is not whether Campion had gone too far, but whether this reviewer had somehow fallen asleep and was stuck in the middle of one of Harvey Keitel's nightmares.

HOLY SMOKE! (R, 114 minutes) – Contains nudity, sex, obscenity and a scene of a big, strong man cold-cocking a defenseless woman.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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