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‘Blue in the Face’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 20, 1995

 


Director:
Wayne Wang;
Paul Auster
Cast:
Harvey Keitel;
Victor Argo;
Lou Reed;
Michael J. Fox;
Mel Gorham;
Roseanne;
Jim Jarmusch;
Mira Sorvino;
Lily Tomlin;
Malik Yoba;
Giancarlo Esposito
R
Under 17 restricted


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According to filmmaker Wayne Wang, the road to "Smoke" and its companion, "Blue in the Face," began on Christmas Day 1990, when he turned to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and read a piece by novelist Paul Auster titled "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story."

Some four years down the road, the result is an evocative anthology about a Brooklyn neighborhood and the motley assortment of characters who congregate around their favorite corner cigar store. Though most of the characters and the settings for "Blue in the Face" appeared first in "Smoke," Wang insists that the film is not a sequel. Instead, the movie is a sort of improvisation on themes and ideas from the first film.

Shot in only six days in 1994, it came to life not as a script per se, but as a collection of rough notes Auster jotted down while in production on "Smoke." Working within these loose parameters, Wayne asked his actors—many of whom were also appearing in "Smoke"—to improvise 10-minute bits around their characters.

Out of the nine or 10 hours of footage they accumulated, Wang, Auster and editor Chris Tellefsen have managed to cull an unpredictable, occasionally amusing, wildly uneven portrait of a neighborhood struggling to hold on to its identity. If the film has a center, it is the pending closing of Auggie's shop.

But as with "Smoke," the movie's strength lies less in its story than in its performers. The picture mulls over a number of topics from Belgian waffles to the pleasures of taking that final drag on your last cigarette before you quit smoking. However, if "Smoke" came across as refreshingly limber and discursive, too much of "Blue in the Face" just seems to sit there. Some of the bits are a kick. For example, I loved the vignettes supplied by Lou Reed, who proposes a revolutionary approach to eye wear, and Michael J. Fox, who stops in briefly as an obvious nut case conducting his own survey of the human condition. (Sample question: "Is there anyone you hate enough to want dead?")

On the other hand, the scenes in which Roseanne, as Vinnie's wife, Dot, pours out her heart to Auggie (Harvey Keitel) are garish and forced, while those that focus on Malik Yoba as a fast-rapping hustler merely seem pointless. Most disappointing, though, is a game but hopelessly misplaced Lily Tomlin as the Belgian Waffle Man.

As usual, Keitel is a saving grace, though he functions more as the film's master of ceremonies than its central character. But "Blue in the Face" suffers seriously from the absence of "Smoke's" other memorable characters, most significantly those played by William Hurt and Forest Whitaker. (The farewell-to-smoking scene was conceived for Hurt, who had to be replaced by director Jim Jarmusch.) Though the film does manage to capture some of the flavor of the crazy, mix-and-match culture in this famed New York borough, it's too insubstantial. All in all, this curiosity—the first so-called "instant film"—doesn't diminish the original from which it sprang, but it doesn't add much, either.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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