By Lisa Schwarzbaum
June 23, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

It’s possible to adapt a good book into a good movie without losing the writerly nuances that make it a good book in the first place, but it’s not easy; usually the author stomps off at some point in the process, thereafter to rant about how the work has been butchered, disemboweled, ruined by an insensitive director. Wayne Wang, in contrast, has a talent for creating with writers, not in spite of them. He worked closely with author Amy Tan in adapting her popular, well-written novel The Joy Luck Club into a popular, well-made movie. And he worked so tightly with the highly literary writer Paul Auster on Smoke that the billing reads, ”A Film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster.”

The duo are well suited: Wang’s delight in found comedy (think of Eat a Bowl of Tea) meets Auster’s fondness for found fatalism (think of The Music of Chance). In Smoke, Wang punches up the flavorful, hand-rolled quality of Auster’s storytelling — something apt for a series of vignettes that take place in and around an old-fashioned Brooklyn cigar store presided over with casual dignity by Auggie (Harvey Keitel) and visited regularly by Paul (William Hurt), a blocked and depressed novelist. Other characters amble into the plot — a black teenager (Harold Perrineau), a sad car mechanic (Forest Whitaker), Auggie’s ex-girlfriend Ruby (Stockard Channing), and her crack-addicted daughter (Ashley Judd). Cigars and cigarettes are lit and sucked. Events occur, linked like smoke rings and carrying about as much weight, as the stories waft, curl, and evaporate (this is the plus and the minus of such a Lit Flick). The ash of melancholy lingers. Keitel is contained and understated; Hurt (in one of his mysterious Hurtish New York accents) is Hurtishly weary. The best vignette, at the very end of the film, is the story Auster originally wrote for a newspaper as a Christmas piece, the one that inspired Wang to make Smoke in the first place. It’s the one you’ll want to inhale. B+

  • Movie
  • R
  • 112 minutes
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