Harvey Keitel, director Wayne Wang and writer Paul Auster had such fun making "Smoke" they got their producers to go along with a second film, "Blue in the Face," in which Keitel returns as Augie Wren, proprietor of the Brooklyn Cigar Co. Several other characters from the first film return, too.
If you enjoyed "Smoke" you'll most likely want to see "Blue in the Face," which has considerable charm and humor, but to avoid being a bit let down it's important to view it as a companion film rather than a sequel.
That's because the two are different kinds of films and offer different rewards. Whereas "Smoke" has a plot to move it along, "Blue in the Face" has none, and the only question--a large one, for sure--is whether Augie's boss Vinnie (Victor Argo) is going to go through with selling the place. "Tobacco's out, wheat germ's in," Vinnie says with a shrug, triggering a speech by Augie that is the heart of the film as to how the corner cigar store "helps keep the neighborhood together."
Indeed, "Blue in the Face" is above all a Valentine to Brooklyn, a salute to a glorious past epitomized by the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field and a resilient, though edgy, present. Essentially, it's the background of "Smoke" moved to the fore, composed of all the colorful people who drop by the store and punctuated by person-on-the-street interviews attesting to the sturdy character of Brooklynites and a series of locals reeling off statistics--"98 nationalities, 720 murders in a year."
This time Wang and Auster co-directed, and they "created situations" in collaboration with the actors, which sounds mighty like improvisation. That's always a risky approach, of course, with an inherent hit-or-miss factor. Luckily, there are more hits than misses, and wisely, Wang and Auster proceed as if the whole undertaking were a lark, moving right along with considerable bounce. Adam Holender's fresh, airy camera work and a vibrant electric score also add vitality to an all-talk film.
Among the visitors to the Brooklyn cigar store are independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who's come to share a final cigarette with Augie while extolling the pleasures of smoking; Roseanne, as Vinnie's bored wife, determined to take off for Las Vegas with or without her spouse; Madonna, as a singing/dancing telegram girl; RuPaul, who leads a street dance; an amusingly wry Lou Reed, who admits a love for a town he's been trying to get away from for 35 years; Mira Sorvino, victim of a purse-snatcher; Lily Tomlin, in a sly disguise; returnee Giancarlo Esposito, as a neighborhood guy subjected to a bizarre interview by a weird Michael J. Fox; and Malik Yoba as an especially imaginative and funny neighborhood guy.
Also returning from "Smoke" are Mel Gorham, this time overly strident as Augie's girlfriend; Jared Harris as Augie's sweetly dim assistant; and Steve Gevedon and Jose Zuniga, who hang out at Brooklyn Cigar. John Lurie and his group are around for musical interludes. Yoba and Argo make the strongest impressions.
Holding everything together is Keitel as the warm corner-store philosopher, who leaves us wishing we had an Augie Wren in our own neighborhood.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and a scene of nudity. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for mature older children.
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'Blue in the Face'
Harvey Keitel: Augie Wren
Victor Argo: Vinnie
Mel Gorham: Violet
A Miramax presentation. Directors Wayne Wang, Paul Auster. Producers Greg Johnson, Peter Newman, Diana Phillips. Situations created by Wang and Auster in collaboration with the actors. Cinematographer Adam Holender. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Costumes Claudia Brown. Music the John Lurie National Orchestra, other sources. Production designer Kalina Ivanov. Art director. Video segments directed by Harvey Wang. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.