Paul Benjamin likes to tell stories.
Here is one: A Russian writer is trapped in Stalingrad by the German advance of 1942. The situation is harsh, with food and other essentials difficult to come by.
Cigarette paper is particularly hard to find. But the writer has a solution: the manuscript of a novel he has written of which he has but one copy. Gradually, page by page, he smokes his way through the book.
Why? Well, as Paul explains, “You think you’re gonna die, what’s more important - a good book or a good smoke?”
That line may not sum up the theme of “Smoke,” the touching little film by director Wayne Wang and New York novelist/ screenwriter Paul Auster, but it certainly captures the personal quality of the movie’s worldview and the idiosyncratic cleverness of Auster’s characters.
For although a lot of smoking goes on in “Smoke,” and in fact the main action of the movie itself takes place in and around a Brooklyn, N.Y., tobacco shop, the use of tobacco is really only a secondary concern to the filmmakers.
As much as anything else, “Smoke” is about baseball, lost parents, lost children, lost dreams and lost love. It’s about finding the meaning of life and recapturing the ability to enjoy that life however you can.
As much as any plot device, though, “Smoke” is character-driven.
Paul (William Hurt), for example, is a lonely writer, still reelng from the sudden death of his young wife. He spends his days in his stark apartment, writing novels that no one may ever read. He hasn’t published anything since the tragedy. Still, on he writes.
Then there’s Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.). A young black man with a mysterious past, he saves Paul from being run over. They develop a friendship that, in keeping with the film’s inventive nature, ends up involving a bag of cash, a country garage, neighborhood thugs who mug Paul and, finally, a bitter, disabled Vietnam veteran (in movies, are there any other kind?) portrayed by Forest Whittaker.
And then there’s Auggie (Harvey Keitel). Auggie manages the tobacco shop that, while being one of the few public places that Paul visits, is the gathering point for the rest of the film’s characters. These include his ex-wife (Stockard Channing), her drug-addicted daughter (Ashley Judd), the shop’s owner (Victor Argo) and various hangers-on portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito, Jose Zuniga, Stephen Gevedon and Jared Harris.
“Smoke” is the kind of movie that has the feel of a director merely following a great script, but actually it is that much rarer combination: the seamless blending of writer and director. The film clearly is script-driven, with Auster’s dialogue being both hip and profound (no small feat).
Much of the film’s strength, though, involves the acting. It’s nice to see Hurt back on screen, using his talented-if-mannered style to instill life in the pained writer.
Keitel, as always, is great, which begs a question: How is it that this ex-member of Martin Scorsese’s ensemble shows up in so many independent productions, from “The Piano” to “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs” to “The Bad Lieutenant,” each time pulling off a memorable performance? Has he got a good nose for roles, or does he have something more: the ability to help shape a film to fit his persona?
Whatever, he is featured in this film’s single-best scene, the recitation of a Christmas story, told in a continuous closeup, that ends with the camera lens focused on Auggie’s smile. And it’s a telling point that he makes earlier on to Paul: Each of the photos he takes outside his shop each morning is unique, he says. To see what’s really going on in the world, all you have to do is look.
Wang resorts to a few camera tricks, but mostly he just lets Auster’s story unfold. Melded with Auster’s intriguing setting and characters, that story is more than enough.
All you have to do is watch.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “Smoke” ***-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Wayne Wang from a screenplay by Paul Auster; starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Harold Perrineau Jr., Giancarlo Esposito, Ashley Judd, Forest Whitaker Running time: 1:52 Rating: R Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Smoke:” Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: Some actors, once they reach a comfortable and profitable level of stardom, like to offset their money-making performances in big studio films by playing more unusual characters in smaller pictures. William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Forest Whittaker and Stockard Channing have all gone small in films. … Now they’re all working together in the drama “Smoke,”and they all should have stayed home. So should you. Bill Jones/The Phoenix Gazette: Auggie’s story is spellbinding, not because it’s true necessarily, but because it seems true. It’s enshrouded in the smoke from Auggie and Paul’s cigars. It drifts on an air of irony. Charles Passy/Cox News Service: And indeed, “Smoke” is rich with the kind of small details that director Wayne Wang, fresh from the triumphant “Joy Luck Club,” is best at patiently handling. Robert W. Butler/Kansas City Star: “Smoke” is only marginally realistic - in real life people aren’t quite so verbose and the dialogue here is ever so slightly stylized for theatrical effect. But the movie’s dominant emotions - an affecting blend of melancholia and hope - ring absolutely true. John Scalzi/McClatchy News Service: “Smoke” is about storytelling: the stories we make up for ourselves, the stories we make up for the people we know or are about to know and the stories we tell the outside world. “Smoke” is a bit of a literary marvel, wrapped up in an inconspicuous little film.