Auggie Wren, a smoke shop owner; Paul Benjamin, a novelist; Rashid, a black teenage boy; Cyrus Cole, a one-armed black filling station owner; Ruby, Auggie’s one-eyed former girlfriend—these make up much of the dramatis personae of the intelligent and absorbing 1995 American film, Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang and written by novelist Paul Auster. Somebody in the film complains it is only a matter of time before society outlaws smoking, wanting it to vanish as surely as the smoke of every lighted cigarette does. At least for the present, though, smoking is one of the few pleasures the characters here enjoy, particularly Auggie and Paul. Tobacco has its evanescence, and so does happiness; the characters know what it’s like to look smoke in the eye, as it were.
Auggie once shoplifted for Ruby and was given by a judge the choice between jail and the military. Opting for the latter, serving his time, he was abandoned by thoughtless Ruby for another man. What light there was in Auggie’s life was evanescent: smoke. Ruby herself (played by Stockard Channing with astonishing control and pleasant force) has a grown, cocaine-addicted, foul-mouthed daughter who excoriates her. Paul has experienced a writer’s block ever since his wife and unborn child were accidentally gunned down in the street. Cyrus lost his arm after drunkenly crashing his car and consequently killing his wife (God, he says, took away that particular limb to remind him of what “a bad, stupid, selfish man” he is), which woman happens to have been Rashid’s mother (Cyrus is his father). Rashid grew up without either of his parents since Cyrus forsook him years ago the way Ruby forsook Auggie. Now he is running from thieving thugs.
Not that there isn’t any hope here; a bit of uplift results merely from the idea of slowing down now and then, taking one’s time, for the sake of personal equilibrium. At least one critic has indicated that having a smoke requires slowing down. Further, there are some virtuous deeds done, though never mind the stupid phrase “random acts of kindness” that one magazine review in particular used to describe them. Random acts of kindness do not exist, random meaning without purpose or design. The various acts of kindness here are all purposeful.
Smoke is a healthy, even edifying, achievement.