There’s a relaxing charm to Wayne Wang’s Smoke that’s a real challenge to create on the big screen. Characters glide in and out of this airy Brooklyn world, yet it feels natural. The Brooklyn Cigar Co. at the center of the action feels lived in and doesn’t look like a movie set. Its owner Auggie (Harvey Keitel) gives a warm welcome to the random customers who arrive to chat about baseball or wax philosophically about life. This neighborhood store feels like a throwback to a pre-Internet era where conversations happened in a town’s shops and bars. One regular customer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), is a lonely writer and a relic of that era. His wife was killed by a stray bullet nearby, and he lives with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Paul strolls through town in a haze yet hasn’t given up completely. When Rashid (Harold Perrineau) saves him from an approaching truck, Paul’s determined to help out the young guy. It’s this type of random connection that drives Wang’s engaging film.
The true force behind this film is the cast; Hurt and Keitel have rarely been more appealing. Perrineau was in his early 30s but deftly plays the much younger Rashid as he searches for his father. There are brief yet memorable appearances from Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, and Giancarlo Esposito that leave a strong impression. Characters actually sit and talk about their lives, and the plot feels less essential despite some big moments. Hurt is a master at depicting complicated guys who choose their words carefully. Paul is the stand-in for writer Paul Auster, who rose to fame through books like The Invention of Solitude and The Music of Chance. This was Auster’s first screenplay, and it’s no surprise that it comes from a contemplative author. We rarely see this nuanced approach to the English language in films.
Smoke concludes with a remarkable sequence that begins with Auggie telling a Christmas story to Paul, who’s become a friend. A case of mistaken identity led him to spend the holiday with a total stranger, but each took plenty from the experience. What’s intriguing is the way that Keitel tells the story. It could easily be a fabrication, and there’s a glimmer to his smile that hints as much. Even so, we never learn the truth. The movie closes with a black-and-white retelling of this story while Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream” plays in the background. It’s a pitch-perfect finale that summarizes Wang and Auster’s approach. They’re intrigued by the everyday stories and difficulties in our lives. They may seem trivial in a larger context, but they mean everything to the individuals that live them.