Smoke is a very difficult film to describe because it does not unfold with a coherent narrative, but rather with slice-of-life vignettes about chance, communication, and inter-connectedness. Author Paul Auster and director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) worked on the story for years before it reached the screen and the collaboration produces a highly literate, novelistic cinema that is divided into separate chapters, each elaborating a different character. I have seen this small masterpiece many times, but I keep watching it because I love its celebration of the simple pleasures of life: friendships, good conversation, and, of course, smoking a good cigar. Smoke is not a complex or experimental film, just a beautiful and simple delineation of humanity.
Harvey Keitel plays Auggie Wren, the owner of a small cigar store in Brooklyn. An amateur photographer as well as a raconteur of tall tales, Auggie has taken one photograph a day from the street corner outside his store every day for the past 14 years. "People say you have to travel to see the world,'' Auggie says. "Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you're going to see just about all that you can handle.'' When a friend comments that all the snapshots look alike, Auggie points out the differences: the light, the season, and the look on people's faces. It's all a matter of slowing down, Auggie says, being in present time, and observing what is in front of you.
One of the store's regular customers is writer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) who hasn't published a novel since his wife died a few years ago in an incident of street violence. When a young Black man, Rashid Cole, (Harold Perrineau Jr.) saves Paul's life by pulling him away from on an oncoming car, Paul offers him a place to sleep. The lives of the two become intertwined in the young man's encounter with some robbers and in his search for his father, brilliantly played by Forrest Whitaker. When Auggie's former lover, Ruby (Stockard Channing), shows up, she tells Auggie he has a pregnant daughter (Ashley Judd) that now needs his help. These incidents come together in a powerful, fully realized conclusion.
Although Smoke has its moments of high drama, it is mostly a low-key, slice-of-life type of film that depicts events in life as happening for a purpose, not as random or chance occurrences. The characters are not "movie colorful", but ordinary down-to-earth people brought to realization by a flawless ensemble cast. The film reaches a sublime conclusion in a tender Christmas story narrated by Keitel and supported by Tom Waits' haunting song "Innocent When You Dream". Everyone ends up in a better place than when they started, including myself as viewer.