Auggie (Harvey Keitel) is a Brooklyn tobacconist who likes to watch life pass him by, but occasionally he feels like getting involved, and occasionally he has no choice. He knows most of his regular customers to speak to, and some of them like to hang out at the shop and chat, but one, a writer called Paul Benjamin (William Hurt) who enters every day and only buys two of a specific type of cigars, is someone he'll be getting to know better over the next few days. Paul lost his wife in a shooting near the shop some years ago, which makes Auggie feel sorry for him...
And Paul, in light of the tragedy, is the sort of person who will allow life to pass him by as well, although for different reasons in a film which calmly observes the mannerisms of its characters and sees how some are more interested in engaging with the world than others, yet all will be put into the position of doing so by the time the credits roll. This was a collaboration between director Wayne Wang and author Paul Auster, who each had their own following and joined forces to create a superfiction of their talents, or that appeared to be the idea at any rate, and as it turned out if you were attuned to the rhythms of their work then you would likely respond favourably.
That's not to say there was any guarantee, for what was effortless on the page seemed to be more contrived on the screen, with the literary origins of Auster's work rather too glaringly obvious. With the film broken up into various chapters as if in a book, the sense that Auster had not quite adapted to the cinema was strong, but not so much that it became a distraction and some viewers could find that was part of the work's charm. There was a very fine cast assembled for the proceedings, with Keitel especially shining in a role which, unusually for the nineties, did not require him to shoot anybody during the course of the plot: here he was warm, slightly irascible, but understanding.
He was backed with a solid cast, each of whom portrayed their roles with a lived-in ease, even the younger members, so it was clear they could acknowledge what their writer expected of them and provide that to the needs of admittedly episodic scripting. Therefore Hurt convinced as the numb writer who is shaken out of his daze by Rashid (Harold Perrineau), a boy who was passing by in the street and saved Paul from walking into the path of a great big truck. Wanting to reciprocate by way of thanks, he offers Rashid a place to stay for a couple of nights, but doesn't realise, or perhaps refuses to, that the boy has a lot going on in his background which will prove a problem.
But that was true of all the main players in these intertwining yarns, and noting the way everyone has their experience, both good and bad, to draw on to make them the people they are today was a major theme. Mainly it was the bad which was something they had to cope with, and the good which soothed their troubled souls, that being the appeal and benefit of companionship however they try to reject it or how events conspire to push them away from one another. Stockard Channing was the other star, aside from Forest Whitaker in a medium sized capacity though no less important, and she was Ruby, Auggie's ex-wife who shows up pleading for help with their now-grown daughter. That role was filled in an unexpected masterclass of electrifying a story and stealing scenes from the veterans to boot by Ashley Judd, who only appeared for a couple of minutes but with a performance so raw that she made the biggest mark amongst the others trying to be nice to each other by and large. So Smoke was wistful, even inconclusive, but not unenjoyable. Music by Rachel Portman.