Blue In The Face

on October 13, 1995 by Wade Major
Screened at Toronto. After completing "Smoke" in spring 1994, director Wayne Wang and scripter Paul Auster realized they'd grown especially fond of their characters and proposed to Miramax and their producers that they retain the Brooklyn cigar shop location and available cast members to make another film. In a matter of days, rough scenarios were devised by Auster and Wang with the help of original cast members Harvey Keitel, Mel Gorham, Jose Zuniga, Giancarlo Esposito and Steve Gevedon; the two filmmakers then set about co-directing those loose improvisations, which include a host of celebrity cameos by the likes of Roseanne, Michael J. Fox and Lily Tomlin. Intercut with those scenes are videotaped interviews with real-life Brooklyn residents and a hilarious over-the-counter interview with singer Lou Reed, who offers perhaps the wittiest, off-the-cuff deadpan philosophizing about life in New York ever filmed.
Overall, "Blue in the Face" is a joy to watch and a worthy companion piece to "Smoke." There's less story here amid the vignettes (and the William Hurt character does not appear), but the sense of life and truth is every bit as pervasive. Minor supporting characters who received only cursory treatment in "Smoke" have their day in the sun while others, like Keitel's Auggie, experience major life changes only hinted at in the earlier film.
Given its experimental nature, "Blue in the Face" is sometimes uneven, fraying at the edges during the rougher improvisations and leaving no mistake as to which actors are quicker on their feet. For the most part, however, the cast holds together remarkably well, creating a handful of memorable scenes as good as any in "Smoke." Keitel, who shares executive producer credit here, is in typically peak form, as is the perenially underrated Esposito. Other standouts include Tomlin, Fox and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
As spontaneous filmmaking, "Blue in the Face" works less as a coherent movie than as an expression of artistic devotion by the participants. That their love and passion for their craft carry over so infectiously could be the film's greatest achievement. Starring Harvey Keitel, Lou Reed, Giancarlo Esposito and Jim Jarmusch. Directed by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. Produced by Greg Johnson, Peter Newman and Diana Phillips. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated R for language and a scene of nudity. Running time: 97 min.
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