Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

BLUE IN THE FACE (1995) ** 1/2

Directed by Wayne Wang & Paul Auster, with "situations created" by Wang & Auster in collaboration with the actors. Photography, Adam Holender. Editing, Christopher Tellefsen. Production design, Kalina Ivanov. Costumes, Claudia Brown. Video segments director, Harvey Wang. Cast: Lou Reed, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne, Mel Gorham, Jim Jarmusch, Lily Tomlin, Jared Harris, Giancarlo Esposito, Malik Yoba, Joe Zuniga, Victor Argo, Stephen Gevedon, the John Lurie National Orchestra, Sharif Rashed, Mira Sorvino, Keith David, Peggy Gormley, Harvey Keitel, and others. A Miramax film. 89 min. Rated R (language).

What do you call a sequel that's not a sequel? As director Wang and writer Auster were making the wonderful "Smoke," they realized that the members of their cast were "assuming a life independent of their script." So they had the notion of making a sort of (very much sort of) follow-up that could be shot fast (it took six days), use available actors from "Smoke" (these are few), add many new, mostly volunteer performers, do the whole thing as a series of improvisations as opposed to the carefully scripted "Smoke."

Wang and Auster directed. They also "created situations" with the help of the cast. The film was shot in six days with part of the "Smoke" crew and several replacements. The funding, provided by Miramax, must have been under a shoestring, perhaps a few inches only.

"Blue in the Face" takes it title from the actors being urged to talk until they are just that. It has little in common with "Smoke" save that its epicenter is "The Brooklyn Cigar Company," the corner store managed by Auggie (Harvey Keitel). The film might better be called "All You Wanted To Know About Brooklyn and Never Thought of Asking."

Sometimes it feels like "More About Brooklyn Than You Wanted to Know." At other times it does not.

"Blue" is a celebration of Brooklyn, its many racial groups that presumably live in harmony ( in the movie they go further, into friendship), the nostalgia for the Dodgers whose departure hurt so much, the ghost of Jackie Robinson, the need for retaining TBCC which is more than just about tobacco, etc. The statistics include the number of potholes in Brooklyn. We also get some new and old documentary footage.

"Blue" opens splendidly. Outside TBCC, Auggie's girlfriend (Mel Gorham) is talking a blue streak. A 12-year old boy snatches the purse of a woman, is chased and caught by Auggie. The bleeding-heart snatchee (Mira Sorvino pre-"Mighty Aphrodite"), though urged on by experienced, world-wise Auggie, will not press charges. Disgusted, Auggie gives the purse back to the thief saying "Take it!" The boy runs off. Mira is livid with rage.

Little of the hour-and-a-half is up to those standards. People come and go, mostly desultory talk takes place, characters reappear or don't. There is a strong climate of good fellowship. A few sketches work well, the others do not.

This is the kind of movie that expands the medium, that you want to like. In one sense, it is a very, very distant cousin of talkfest pictures like the chic "Metropolitan " or the studentish "Slacker." Even more distantly, it is a street version of the sophisticated "My Dinner With Andre" or the films of Eric Rohmer. In another sense it is close to e-mail chat, but with a much higher ratio of interesting to dull. Still, there are arid stretches.

Nice things do occur however. Lou Reed, behind the counter at the start and intermittently, addresses us on a whole mess of ideas, beginning with the fact he's been leaving Brooklyn for 36 years.

The end credits are followed by more film then by credits and then by a heartfelt tribute to the late Jerry Garcia. So don't walk out of the theater until the lights come on. In-between the best improviser is Jim Jarmusch who goes to the TBCC to smoke his last cigarette and talk with Auggie.

What a difference a smart director-writer can make! Here, Jarmusch could be a character in one of his own movies. In his several appearances he discourses humorouly on smoking, tells of his first cigarette, the result of a robbery by his young friends in Akron, Ohio, when he was 12. He tells of a friend who had his alarm clock wake him up every four hours, so that he might have a smoke and go back to sleep.

Ever the film buff, Jarmusch describes actor Richard Conte in a war movie where he plays an obsessive smoker. We see a scene of that old film. Jarmusch also tells of the schoolboy interpretation of Lucky Strike's LSMFT: "Loose Stomach Means Full Toilet," then laughs at the absurd slogan "It's Toasted."

He then wonders why, when a movie character's gun is emptied, he throws the revolver away! All the while -as well as in in some sketches with other people-Keitel listens, adds some words, always makes you feel that he is real and cares about those around him.

Jarmusch is immediately identifiable. Others, like Lily Tomlin as a man, are not. I had a problem recognizing Roseanne whom I first took for a sleazy hooker. Her acting is atrocious. When she turns out to be the wife of the store's owner (Victor Argo) she does a dumb shtick from her TV programs about wanting to go to Las Vegas.

Madonna, too, as a singing telegram messenger in a sluttish outfit may cause a double-take as she looks way older than her then 35 years. She is not amusing.

Mel Gorham, as a Latino pepperpot, has one of the funniest lines. She tells Auggie " I um goinggg to make looove to you, I am goinggg to ride you like a Beeeg Boool."

I forget who the dummy is that out of the blue provides us with this aberrant wisdom: "First you like somebody, then you kiss them, then you do the dirty, and if you fall in love with them, you marry someone else."

Other "situations" can be be dull, but the better ones compensate. The novelty and brio of the film are not without charm.

Sometimes, leftovers can make dishes even better than the original. Sometimes they cannot, but they are still worth eating. "Blue in the Face" is like that. ===========================================

NOTE: The last segment is obviously a (welcome) afterthought. Was it added after the film was originally shown, as a piece In Memoriam Jerry Garcia (August 1, 1942 - August 9, 1995)? I am told that it was screened as "Coffee and Cigarettes" at the Telluride Festival, and that it was the last video Garcia made.

Oddly, Jim Jarmusch made "Coffee and Cigarettes" (short,1986), then "Coffee and Cigarettes Part Two" (short, 1988), then "Coffee and Cigarettes (Somewhere In California)" (1993). I have seen at least two of them, but I don't remember any of those being anything like the item in "Blue." .

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel