Wang and Auster's collaboration began with what became the final episode of Smoke, a short, hilarious and weirdly sweet Christmas story Auster had written for the op-ed page of the New York Times. Wang admired it, and talked Auster into building a whole film around the Brooklyn cigar store of the main character, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). One plot involves a regular customer of Auggie's, a writer (William Hurt) whose life and career have been paralyzed since the death of his wife a few years earlier. Walking home from the shop one day, Hurt is saved from an accident by a smart and peppery black teenager (Harold Perrineau Jr.). The kid has no place to go, so Hurt invites him to stay at his apartment for a while.
This branches out to the kid's attempt to reconnect with his long-absent father (Forest Whitaker), who doesn't know him when he shows up at the father's rural gas station claiming to want a job. Meanwhile, Auggie's ex-girlfriend (Stockard Channing) shows up in the store after years of absence, claiming that her junkie daughter (Ashley Judd) is Auggie's. These and other strands cross and recross and interact with each other. The earlier film of an Auster story was 1993's The Music of Chance, about two young men who are forced to pay off a poker loss to two wealthy old eccentrics by building a wall on their Pennsylvania estate out of the stones of an old castle they had brought over from Europe. The project was inexplicable, and inexplicably sinister, and the film was a quite effective mordant comedy about money, power and fate.
Smoke, being rooted in a Christmas story, is less crisp and uneasy than Music. With its theme of families being reunited or remade, it moves right up to the threshold of sentiment a time or two, but never quite through the door. Auster never lets his world get too normal. The two who left their families on purpose are missing parts of their bodies--Whitaker an arm, Channing an eye. Auggie has another oddball project--not on the same scale as Music's wall, but quirky enough--involving the photographing of the same spot every day at the same time. Wang's evenly paced, unshowy direction--more assured here than in his epic The Joy Luck Club--binds together some fine performances. Hurt is better than he's been in years, in a part similar but far superior to his role in The Accidental Tourist, a man walking around stunned by a bereavement from the recent past. Channing is in good form, and Judd's single scene as her daughter is a jolt. Newcomer Perrineau is greatly appealing as the ingratiating kid, and Whitaker makes his small and difficult role explode. Best of all, perhaps, it's a pleasure to see Keitel playing someone who, though slightly strange and querulous, is unambiguously a nice guy.