City Paper is not for tourists
“Was that over the top?” asks a puckishly self-conscious Jim Carrey at one point in Batman Forever, in which he plays a retooled version of the Riddler. Yes it was, but not nearly far enough. Like its predecessors, the third in this series of Batman unepics is a clamorous, sweeping operatic spectacle that has virtually no impact. Forever? The film’s effect barely lingers for the time it takes to throw away a Junior Mints box.
It’s fitting that Carrey’s query, in which his mannered (and overexposed) mania briefly yields to irony, is one of the movie’s few memorable lines. Forever doesn’t really care about its subject at all, except as an excuse for computer-generated pageantry and in-jokes. (The latter include references to Tim Burton, who co-produced this Batman flick after directing the first two, and to Metropolis, home of DC Comics’ other prime property.) Replacing Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer gets top billing, but Batman’s shadowy presence is just a pretext for director Joel Schumacher’s frenetic camera movements and Barbara Ling’s extravagant production design. Kilmer is by far the more stylish actor of the two, but he ends up just as much a prisoner of the suit as Keaton was.
Flatliners and Lost Boys director Schumacher was reportedly hired to make this sequel less “dark,” and the result isn’t quite so perversely brooding as Batman Returns. Still, there are few fundamental differences. As did its antecedents, the film is incapable of pacing itself and animates Batman’s logo better than it does the character himself. (This time, the bat emblem forms itself out of the Warner Brothers insignia, and later turns up as a Rorschach blot.) All three Batflicks are overstuffed, mechanical, and unable to commit to psychodrama, camp, or pure shoot’em-up.
Part of the problem is that the series’ creators have never figured out how to adapt comic-book narratives, which are a serial form, to self-contained two-hour movies. Typically, scripters Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman overload the scenario with events and characters. Besides unraveling the Riddler’s rather tepid plot to zombify Gotham City residents via 3-D TV, Batman must face psychotic supervillain Harvey “Two-Face” Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) while adding new partner Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and lusty criminal psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) to his small circle of intimates.
With all this going on, there’s no time for development: Chase practically rapes Batman the first time she gets a close look at his rubber suit (now outfitted with nipples), while youthful ward Dick Grayson, freshly installed at Wayne Manor, must find his way into the off-limits Batcave with a minimum of time and effort. Eliminating the preliminaries, however, precludes not merely believability but also drama. The film’s barely connected set pieces are impressive in an abstract way, but don’t add up to a coherent story or even a prevailing mood.
Neither does the design work of Ling and her associates, who have created a Gotham City that’s equal parts art deco, Soviet constructivism, and Nazi and Italian-fascist grandiosity, all topped with a dollop of postwar kitsch. (Wayne Manor, a vast neo-Georgian estate, looks humane by comparison.) As oppressive as Elliot Goldenthal’s pseudo-Danny Elfman score—and who ever thought there’d be such a thing as a pseudo-Danny Elfman score?—Gotham’s skyline is meaninglessly foreboding. If this ongoing update of Batman is the saga of an empty suit, then the filmmakers have selected a suitably empty city in which to set it.
A smoke with Paul Auster is no simple thing. The macho-existentialist novelist is a regular guy—aggressively so—but also an artiste. And his sensibility so informs Wayne Wang’s Smoke that the director has dubbed it “A Film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster,” the sort of unorthodox credit for which you have to get Directors’ Guild dispensation.
Auster’s worldview is integral to this film, the latest by a director who’s done better with delicate topics (The Joy Luck Club, Eat a Bowl of Tea) than with harsh ones (Slam Dance). The story was inspired by “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story,” an Auster tale published in the New York Times on Christmas Day in 1990, and one of its principal characters, novelist Paul Benjamin, shares more than a first name and a profession with Auster.
The writer says Smoke is about families, but the film—like The Music of Chance, the Auster novel that became a screen vehicle for James Spader and Mandy Patinkin—is really more concerned with male bonding. Paul (William Hurt) has been blocked since his pregnant wife was killed in a hail of bullets outside the Brooklyn smoke shop run by Auggie (Harvey Keitel), but he seems invigorated by the boys’-club atmosphere of the shop. What he really needs is a son, not a wife.
Paul comes to life when he provides a haven for a troubled African-American teen-ager who calls himself Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.); after a chance encounter, the latter takes the writer as a surrogate father while planning a reconciliation with the real father he hasn’t seen in years, Cyrus Cole (Forest Whitaker). Hiring Rashid to work in his shop, Auggie also develops a parental relationship with the young man, but all this fathering only works with sons. When Auggie’s old girlfriend Ruby (Stockard Channing) appears to tell him that her daughter (who may be his as well) has moved to Brooklyn, the announcement is not a promise of familial warmth. The putative daughter (Ashley Judd) turns out to be a pregnant crackhead monster who taunts Auggie and is banished after a single scene. She can’t be saved, but Rashid can.
This scenario blends tough-guy and artsy elements in a manner characteristic of Auster. Among Smoke‘s props are a shipment of contraband Cuban cigars and a purloined $5,000 in a paper bag, but Paul isn’t the film’s only creative spirit; Auggie turns out to be a conceptual artist of sorts (he’s taken a picture of his store every morning for 14 years). There’s plenty of literary parallelism too: Paul, Cyrus, Ruby, and maybe Auggie have all lost children, and some of them bear physical emblems of loss: Ruby is missing an eye, Cyrus a hand.
A few of Wang’s flourishes are arch: Smoke is pointlessly divided into chapters titled for its leading characters, and over the film’s course the camera moves in tighter and tighter; in the final scene, when Auggie tells Paul the semi-sentimental Christmas story that started it all, the camera nearly dives down the actors’ throats. Mostly, though, the tone seems appropriate for the material. If Keitel and Hurt are a little smug and unconvincing, so are the characters Auster has created for them.
Among its various meanings, “smoke” is supposed to refer to the conversational bluster real men use to cover their feelings. Still, it’s noteworthy that while Paul and Auggie are a bit inclined toward such bluster, Rashid more closely resembles a pathological liar. Indeed, Rashid bears an uncomfortable kinship with the central character in Six Degrees of Separation, another young African-American charlatan who lies not for financial gain but to insinuate himself into New York’s irresistibly charming art-and-lit demimonde. (Oddly, Channing starred in that movie too.) When Paul and Auggie decide to expedite the reluctant Rashid’s reconciliation with his father, Smoke‘s white man’s burden becomes unbearable. Wang and Auster have hailed their work as “multicultural,” but few will mistake the film’s viewpoint for that of anyone but a privileged white novelist.