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‘Smoke’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 16, 1995

"Smoke" is an amenable anthology of interlocking short stories of male camaraderie that draws so heavily on the pleasures of tobacco it should come with a warning from the surgeon general. A celebration of buddies and butts, it's an unconventionally structured, wonderfully acted group portrait of the regulars at a Brooklyn cigar store.

The smoke shop, managed by crusty but lovable tobacconist Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), is a machismo haven of spilled ash, sports chatter and racing forms. Auggie, who has occupied the corner location for 14 years, is the equivalent of an understanding neighborhood bartender, and his store is a smoker's answer to Cheers.

One of his best customers is Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a recently widowed novelist who consoles himself with frequent cheroots. Unable to write since his wife's death, Paul tries to smoke his muse out of hiding. Then one day, on his way back home from the cigar store, he is pulled from the path of an oncoming car by a teenager, Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau Jr.). The young man is searching for his father (Forest Whitaker).

Rashid's quest, which brings the four men together, dovetails with Auggie's own travails, which involve an old girlfriend, Ruby (Stockard Channing), who shows up after 16 years with a patch over one eye and a drug-addicted daughter she claims is his. After all these years on his own, Auggie likes the idea of a family, but he's not sure he can trust Ruby's story.

The film ends with a seasonal fable called "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," which originally appeared in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times. Written by Paul Auster, the tale involves a bit of holiday larceny, but its true subject—the need to connect with others—underlies all of this insightful screenplay.

Wayne Wang, who last directed 1993's "The Joy Luck Club," struggles with the same lack of momentum as in that other episodic film. The characters are likable Brooklyn icons and the actors warm and earthy, but the viewer—like the reader of a volume of short stories—isn't asked to make a commitment to any one of them. "Smoke" gets in your eyes, but not under your skin.

Smoke is rated R.

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