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‘Smoke’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 16, 1995

TO USE an inevitable metaphor, "Smoke," set in a Brooklyn cigar store, ultimately dissipates. But before that dispersal (which isn't so far from the end), there's a wonderfully unhurried and precious yarn to savor, about the lure of storytelling, the mysteries of people and the vagaries of fate.

In this collaboration between Paul Auster (who wrote the screenplay) and Wayne Wang (the director), several apparently unrelated story lines gradually become connected over five "chapters." What's appealing are the unfolding surprises, coincidences and developments that create those links.

At the center of everything is Harvey Keitel, a proprietor who has spent 14 years in the same store. A born storyteller and conversationalist, he loves gabbing with customers, selling them good cigars and holding forth from his corner of the world.

William Hurt, a novelist and one of Keitel's regulars, has become blocked following his wife's death in a random shooting. Hurt's narrative creativity—even at the best of times—is more labored than Keitel's. The difference in outlook between these raconteurs—one professional, the other amateur—becomes apparent when Keitel shows Hurt his collection of photographs. When Hurt realizes the pictures have all been taken from the same spot, he flips faster through the album pages.

"You'll never get it if you don't slow it down, my friend," says Keitel. Each picture, he points out, was taken at precisely the same time of morning, showing subtle variety—in the people passing in front of the lens, the weather conditions, lighting differences, seasonal hues, and so forth. For Keitel, these photographs are a chronicle of his life. For Hurt, it's just repetition.

One thing leads subtly to another. Hurt, still distraught at his loss, walks into a busy street, only to be snatched from death by a black teenager (Harold Perrineau). In gratitude, Hurt offers the drifting teenager (who claims his name is Rashid) a place to crash. The kid declines. But some days later, after Hurt has almost forgotten him, Perrineau returns, looking for a roof and toting a brown paper bag full of cash.

That stash and Perrineau, who may or may not be a liar (shades of "Six Degrees of Separation"), figure significantly in the grand scheme of things. So do the ensuing sagas, which feature Forest Whitaker as a mechanic trying to escape his past, and Stockard Channing, an old flame of Keitel's, who comes to him with a problem he wishes he didn't have to face.

"Smoke" is also about the mysteries of chance: The seconds that separated Hurt's wife from life (had she left Keitel's store a moment later, she would not have stepped into gunfire) and the seconds that separated Perrineau from death (also in another shootout). Last but not least is Keitel's camera, which has its own history—the concluding and uniting narrative of the whole film. (That particular, fictional anecdote originally appeared in a Christmas column Auster was commissioned to write for the New York Times—which became the impetus for this movie.)

Unfortunately, the easy, involving pace that is the movie's strength, becomes part of its demise. Director Wang, who tends to over-stretch good ideas ("Eat a Bowl of Tea" and "Dim Sum"), repeats his recurring mistake. "Smoke" becomes a little too taken with its own design and loses its momentum and vitality. But even toward the end, its main intention, which is to keep you wondering and entertained purely on the strength of tall tales, fresh characters and subtle mysteries, is always somewhere in the ether. You just have to sniff a little harder to catch the aroma.

SMOKE (R) — Contains sexual situations and profanity.

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