Movie Review – Smoke (1995) (Mini Review)

Nice intentioned, yet ultimately decidedly dull ensemble flick that sparkles whenever Stockard Channing or Forest Whitaker arrive on scene; Smoke spends more time away from the landmark cigarette store that headlines the film than they do in it. While the characters are generally interesting, and the movie is well filmed in and around New York City, there’s a lethargy and clunkiness to the script and the performances that prevent it from being a great film.


– Summary –

Director :    Wayne Wang
Year Of Release :   1995
Principal Cast :  William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Harold Perrineau, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd, Victor Argo, Jared Harris, Michelle Hurst, Deridre O’Connell, Malik Yoba, Daniel Auster.
Approx Running Time :   112 Minutes
Synopsis:  Auggie owns a cigarette store in New York City – the film tells a variety of stories about both he and his patrons as they work through their internal struggles of daily life.
What we think :   Well intentioned, yet ultimately decidedly dull ensemble flick that only sparkles whenever Stockard Channing or Forest Whitaker arrive on scene; Smoke spends more time away from the landmark tobacco store that headlines the film than they do in it. While the characters are generally interesting, and the movie is well filmed in and around New York City, there’s a lethargy and clunkiness to the script and the performances that prevent it from being a great film.


Editors Note: This review is part of The Cinematic Katzenjammer’s Not-So-Secret-Santa Review Swap (in July) Blog-a-thon. For more reviews, head over to TCK and check out what’s happening!

Just Quickly

Smoke is one of those ensemble films that has a lot of people doing a lot of stuff that amounts to sod all by the end of the film. A bizarre mix of cigar smoke and coarse language, as well as a dash of heart and some kooky performances by Stockard Channing and Forest Whitaker, sees Smoke just amble along with its hodge-podge narrative, an almost inert attempt to Pulp Fiction-ise an otherwise fairly plain story. Auggie (Harvey Keitel) owns a tobacco store, which is patronized by a writer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), whose wife was killed in a botched robbery a few years prior. Paul is saved from being hit by a truck one day, by a young Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau), and the pair strike an unlikely, and initially awkward, friendship. Rashid, according to his Aunt (Michelle Hurst), who comes looking for the runaway youth, is seeking his estranged father, Cyrus (Forest Whitaker, appearing with a hook on one arm!), who now works at a garage out in the country, perhaps to reconcile with him. When Rashid is discovered to himself have come into possession of stolen money, thanks to local hoodlum The Creeper (Malik Yoba), Paul confronts him but Rashid is resolute. However, after screwing up a business deal of Auggies on his first day at work, Rashid gives Auggie the stolen money to clear his debt. Meanwhile, Auggie’s former lover, Ruby (Stockard Channing, complete with eyepatch, and utterly terrific in a smallish role) arrives in town seeking help with Auggie’s teenage daughter, Felicity (Ashley Judd). Unaware he even had a daughter, Auggie is suspicious at first, but they eventually gives in to Ruby’s hopelessness.

The Result

As much as I admire William Hurt and Harvey Keitel as actors, only one of them comes out of this film with his reputation intact. Keitel leads from the front, dominating this film with his spry attitude and surly demeanor. The rest of the cast – Stockard Channing and Forest Whitaker included – tend to become lost in the slow-burn rumble of the films inadequacies, largely to do with pacing. The film creaks along through the melodramatic, often cringingly overblown acting performances, with large inexplicable gaps in dialogue leaving both the actors and the viewers hanging. There’s a fair amount of truth to the film, in that the situations and scenarios seem genuine, “torn from the headlines” as it were, but Wayne Wang’s (The Joy Luck Club, Maid In Manhattan) lyrical photography and weird choice of editing (holding cuts on characters who aren’t directly involved in the action) work counter-intuitively to the attempted Pulp Fiction style interweaving of narrative. The film just meanders, the plot never seems to spark like it should, and there’s a listlessness here that no amount of solid acting work can overcome. Smoke isn’t a great film – it’s not bad, it’s just not quite “good” in the sense you’d enjoy watching it more than once; recommended purely as a curiosity for those interested in seeing Matrix Trilogy’s Perrineau, a young Ashley Judd role, and Harvey Keitel run acting rings around everyone.






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12 thoughts on “Movie Review – Smoke (1995) (Mini Review)

  1. Every once in a while, a film comes down the pike that is so refreshing, so rich, you’d swear it was inspired by some immortal spirit who condescended to take human form in order to share her perspective with us. Smoke is one such film.Although there’s nothing particularly special about each of several main characters, seemingly picked at random off of a New York street corner, they come off as noble, even heroic, in spite of the fact that their collective problems amount to nothing more than the usual garden variety. The main character, for example (Auggie Wren, played by Harvey Keitel) is a tobacconist around whose shop the main characters revolve. He has an unusual habit: every morning, at the same time of the day, he photographs the same street corner, and puts the pictures together in a series of albums. It’s time-lapse photography on an enormous scale. He can’t explain why he does it. He just needs to do it. And it’s a really marvelous device for delivering the movie’s main theme: everything that matters, all the meaning in the world that can be condensed from holy books and vows and catechisms and poems, is right there before us. We just need to have the eyes to see it. The things we tend to dismiss as prosaic, out of familiarity, emerge from the pages of his album as special, wonderful, enchanted. There’s a great line in the movie about how Sir Walter Raleigh measured the weight of smoke. He took a cigar, weighed it, smoked it, and weighed the ash. The difference between the cigar and the ash was the weight of the smoke. Although he new nothing of the chemistry of combustion, he did the best that he could, based upon what he knew. Likewise, Smoke is a movie about people with limited knowledge and perspective. Their assumptions are often wrong; but, they do the best that they can. A small, seemingly insignificant piece of information can, and does, change everything.

    1. Thanks Anita, for those wonderful comments! I really did enjoy the Walter Raleigh story too; reminded me of the film 15 Grams, in all honesty. Smoke isn't a bad film, I just don't think it was MY film, if that makes sense. Thanks for dropping in!

  2. i had to check and the one i'm thinking about is the one your buddy Vern up there was talking about, "Blue in the Face". Much better than this one. (And the author i was thinking about is Paul Auster.)

    As for the difference between a 'vignette' and a 'skit'…you know how think i am, but i'd say a vignette is written and a skit is performed. But that's pro'lly just me.
    My recent post The Wolverine (2013): A Booze Revooze Quick Shot

    1. I thought a vignette was a french thing, and a skit was a redneck American thing…. ya know? 😉

    1. No skits in this one, Al good buddy! Some nice vignettes, but no skits.

      PS: if you can explain the difference between a skit and a vignette, you'll be doing me a favor!!!

  3. I liked the Christmas story in the film and I probably enjoyed the film more because I am a sentimentalist. It is slow, but that's because everything is about conversation not action. I thought it was an interesting change of pace and a nice gem from the period.

    1. Don't get me wrong, I like a talky film as much as the next person; I just don't think the stories (and characters, by and large) held much interest for me. Each to their own, I guess! Thanks for dropping by, richard!!

  4. I was never a huge fan of Smoke and I prefered the improvised sequel Blue in the Face a little bit more. Yes Harvey Keitel is great in this role, as so is Channing and Hurt, but their characters are not all that memorable. The ending scene with the song by Tom Waits stands out as the best moment in that movie.
    My recent post As You Watch. Episode 7: The Shining Vs. Poltergeist.

    1. I am interested in catching the sequel to Smoke, Vern – from what I've read, it was received better than this film was, so I hold out hope that it's a good 'un! Agree with you on the ending, too!! Thanks for stopping by!

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