By turns gregarious and evasive, thoughtful and emotional, he comes across in private conversation as more nimbly intelligent and self-effacingly mellow than most of the characters he plays on screen.
But when Keitel begins to speak about Smoke, he invokes the spirit of another character--his character in the film. Slowly, surely, he becomes Auggie Wren, the laid-back, story-spinning cigar store proprietor, slyly sharing secrets as if he believes no one but you will ever understand what he's talking about.
A collaboration between writer Paul Auster (The Music of Chance), director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), and more than a dozen gifted character actors, Smoke outwardly concerns the people whose lives revolve around a small Brooklyn cigar store. But it's actually about more complex things: redemption, forgiveness, responsibility, the unexpected delight of a new friendship, the allure of a great cigar.
The project's microcosmic attention to human life is what attracted Keitel in the first place--the idea that, in his character's endearingly formal words, "If one observes the people around in one's own neighborhood, in those comings and goings will appear everything one needs to be informed about how to live a good life."
Does Keitel share that view? He pauses, as though surprised by the question--then even more surprised by the answer forming in his mind.
"You see," Keitel continues, "I still feel I grew up in an environment where there is as much as you need to know to live the life as you will discover anyplace else on the planet. I suppose what I'm still pondering is, where do you go after you have learned what there is to be learned in that neighborhood environment? What do you do on the journey beyond that?"
Auggie Wren, the character Keitel plays in Smoke, would not know the answer to such questions. The gregarious owner-operator of the Brooklyn Cigar Co. knows little of life outside his own city block.
His world is rigidly circumscribed, but he loves it nonetheless--so much that he goes to the trouble of keeping a photographic record of its history as seen from the sidewalk of his shop. Each morning at 8 o'clock for the past several years, Wren has taken a single photograph from precisely the same spot of the neighborhood street scene outside his corner store. By now, he has 14 albums full of these pictures, each containing a year's work.
One evening, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), the blocked novelist who is Auggie's favorite customer, is a guest of honor for a very private exhibition of these photos. As Paul impatiently pages through Auggie's albums, he tries very hard to be polite. But all the photos--hundreds and hundreds of photos--of the very same corner, at the very same time. What gives?
Auggie smiles the conspiratorial smile of someone sharing a deep secret with a fellow artist.
"You'll never get it," he tells Paul, "if you don't slow down, my friend."
That is both the message and the method of Smoke. The closer Paul looks at Auggie's seemingly similar photographs, the easier it is for him to recognize revealing details, subtle shadings--and, in one heart-wrenching instance, the sort of immortality in art that is cruelly denied in life.
The longer we remain in the company of Auggie, Paul, and all the vividly drawn and robustly acted characters who populate Smoke, the easier it is for director Wayne Wang and novelist-turned-screenwriter Paul Auster (The Music of Chance, Mr. Vertigo) to enchant us with their pure-bred shaggy-dog story.
The movie is loosely based on "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," an acclaimed short story that Auster originally wrote for--no kidding--the op-ed page of The New York Times. Wang and the author have artfully expanded the original narrative, significantly adding to the cast of characters without diluting the quirkily anecdotal appeal of the original. The movie is an episodic ensemble piece, tartly spiced with a touch of William Saroyan here, a dab of Eugene O'Neill there--don't worry, it's never that heavy--and a light sprinkling of Damon Runyon throughout.
Auggie's cigar store and the apartment upstairs are just two centers of interest. The narrative also shuffles over to Paul's apartment, where the author offers a safe haven to a loquacious teen runaway, and a service station in upstate New York, where the runaway tries to make contact with a father (Forest Whitaker) who may hate himself more than he could ever love a son.
The easygoing Auggie might seem much more capable of handling par-ental responsibilities. But the cigar store phil-osopher is caught entirely off-guard when his brassy ex-wife (Stock-ard Channing) shows up after 18 years to announce that he has a daughter he never knew about. (At least, she thinks Auggie is the father. That's her story, and she's sticking to it.)