Driven by Paul Auster's realistic, lively dialogue and guided by Wayne Wang's steady direction, "Smoke" isn't without fault, but it's certainly a joy when its at its best. The film is set in Brooklyn in 1990. Although the film deals with a set of different stories, the main focus is the tale of Auggie Wren, who runs a cigar shop and discusses topics like baseball and life with his regulars.
One morning, writer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) is saved when a 16-year old named Rashid Cole (Harold Perrineau Jr.) pulls him out of the way when he, not paying attention, nearly walks into the path of a truck. Paul insists that he do something in repayment. Although he only accepts a lemonade at first, he eventually takes Paul up on his offer for a place to stay for a few days.
Auggie opens the shop one day to find the return of ex-girlfriend Ruby (Stockard Channing), who tells him that he may have a daughter, Felicity (Ashley Judd), who is preganant and addicted to drugs. Rashid, after leaving Paul's apartment, also finds himself searching for family - his father (Forest Whitaker), who walked out years ago, is now working at a gas station in the country.
Yes, "Smoke" is a dialogue-heavy picture that does hit some slow patches, and could have been paced a bit better overall. However, there are some terrific aspects that keep the majority of the film involving. Keitel and Channing play off each other wonderfully, as both return their insults with superb timing. Their scenes with Judd - who's excellent here - are well-played and sincerely emotional. Perrineau (the two "Matrix" sequels) is excellent in an early role here, standing up quite well in scenes against both William Hurt and Forest Whitaker.
The film's best moments are its quiet ones. An early sequence has Keitel's character discussing his project: taking a picture of his store at the same time each day for years. When Hurt's character is browsing through them, he sees the same picture. When he examines them more closely, he sees the differences and spots someone close to him that he lost. It's a touching scene, skillfully played by Hurt and Keitel.
An excellent character-driven tale, "Smoke" draws the viewer in and almost entirely keeps the interest due to a mixture of terrific performances and strong writing. A very enjoyable tale from Wang ("Joy Luck Club") and Auster.
VIDEO: Miramax presents "Smoke" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is generally very nice, but some noticable issues keep the presentation from going from good to great. Sharpness and detail are perfectly fine, as the picture offered respectable detail, but the occasional moment of slight softness.
The picture didn't suffer from edge enhancement or compression artifacts. Neither appeared in even slight amounts throughout the show. However, the print used occasionally seemed spotty at times. Some minor wear - a few specks and a mark or two here, some grain and a little dirt there - appeared in a few scenes throughout the movie.
The film's color palette, largely subdued aside from the occasional brighter colors, looked accurately rendered and clean. Black level appeared fine, while flesh tones looked natural.
SOUND: The film is presented by Miramax in Dolby 2.0. While certainly a dialogue-heavy picture, there's a little more than that to this soundtrack. The score is nicely handled and has fine presence in the soundtrack, while ambience - both in the city and country scenes - is clear and convincing. Dialogue remained clean and easy to understand throughout.
EXTRAS: Although I don't believe it was announced as such, Miramax actually delivers a nice Special Edition (even though not listed as such, it deserves the title) for "Smoke", complete with commentary and other features.
The commentary offers thoughts from writer Paul Auster, producers Peter Newman and Greg Johnson, as well as actor Harvey Keitel. Auster and the two producers seem to have been recorded together, while Keitel's very brief (but interesting) comments have been recorded separately and edited in. This is an enjoyable and insightful track, as the writer and producers do a terrific job discussing the characters, development of the film, casting and other aspects.
Aside from the commentary, there are several other features. Two deleted scenes, including one amusing one with actor Andrew McCarthy in the smoke shop, are included. A 20-minute documentary (which looks to be newly created for the DVD, with a mix of new & old interviews) includes interviews with director Wayne Wang, writer Paul Auster and others. The documentary is a little promotional at times, with description of the story and praise for the actors. Yet, as it goes on, it gets better, as the actor interviews provide nice insight into the production and their characters, while the Wang/Auster interviews later in the program provide more in-depth information.
Also, 15-minutes worth of B-roll footage (watching the actors and crew prepare on set for a few scenes) is offered, along with the film's original promotional featurette and the actual, 23-page text version of "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story". "Sneak Peek" trailers for "Blue in the Face" and "Joy Luck Club" are also included.
Final Thoughts: "Smoke" drifts in a couple of slow stretches, but the remainder of the film is a success: great characters, superb performances, fine writing and several emotional, memorable scenes. Miramax's DVD offers fine audio/video quality, along with a handful of very nice supplements. Recommended.