Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) is a tobacconist in Brooklyn, and he is reflecting on quite a week where everyone he knew started acting more than a little crazy. It started when he was outside his shop and a kid ran past having just snatched the purse of a passerby (Mira Sorvino), and he gave chase, grabbing the kid and hauling him back to the scene of the crime. But after seeing how young he was, the woman wanted to let him go, something Auggie could not understand: he was so infuriated he gave the purse back to the kid and made him run off...
But don't go thinking this was any significant plot development because that opening scene had next to nothing to do with anything that followed, which was just the way directors Wayne Wang and Paul Auster liked it. Blue in the Face was the follow-up, sort of sequel, to their previous film Smoke, made because they had enjoyed working on that first film so much that they were keen to encourage their cast in their improvisation techniques as they had been so impressed with the actors' talents. Unfortunately not everyone from Smoke was able to make it into this effort thanks to other commitments, so what you had here was littered with celebrity cameos.
Certainly Keitel was back, and much of the modest pleasure of watching this was due to seeing him enjoying himself and being amused by those around him, which may not have sounded like much but went a surprisingly long way as far as entertainment was set out. It helped that most of the guest stars were happy to come up with something comedic, which was far more successful than the dramatic business which had the unmistakable smack of an actors' workshop instead of something worth emotionally investing in, unlike the previous work. So when it was funny, eccentrically so, everyone looked to be on form, but that's not to say there were no poignant moments.
This was a very Brooklyn-centric movie, as if it had been made solely for the residents of that area and if anyone else liked it that was a bonus, yet it also had a way of educating those audiences who had never been about its vicinity what it might be like to spend your days there. There was plenty of local colour, thanks to selected video segments consisting of vox pops with actual locals, and a history lesson about how the region still feels the bereavement of their baseball team the Dodgers moving out and going to Los Angeles in the nineteen-fifties. Plus a man who has invented a way of getting plastic bags out of trees with a long pole of his own invention - he tells us he's applied for a patent.
But it was the bigger names who provided most of the diversion, with Lou Reed opening the movie and being dotted throughout it in conversation, talking about how he is scared everywhere except New York City and how his flip-up glasses are actually a revolutionary design which everyone asks him about where to get a pair: it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than most interviews with him. Others, such as Madonna's singing telegram, are rather forced, with Michael J. Fox's survey taker just on the edge of going either way, and Roseanne Barr's wife of the cigar shop owner (Victor Argo) aiming for a more serious tone that falls a little flat. The real star was indie director Jim Jarmusch, a last minute replacement for William Hurt (who had starred in Smoke), and appearing in the shop to partake of his last ever cigarette, but seeing him chatting with Keitel about how Nazis smoke in movies or why characters in thrillers throw away their empty guns was a joy. This was only ever going to be a mixed bag, but its scrapbook tone was pleasing.