Harvey Keitel plays Auggie Wren, the owner of a neighbourhood smoke shop. One of his most loyal customers is writer Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a man so clouded in pain that he nearly walks into traffic, saved at the last minute by a kid on the street, Rashid, played by a very young Harold Perrineau. All three of them spend the movie telling various stories, with flexible degrees of reality to them. Truth pales in comparison to an aesthetically pleasing story. The satisfaction in telling these stories is what’s important.
Rashid claims he’s hiding from a gang, but he’s really searching for the father who disappeared from his life years ago (Forest Whittaker, who is only 2 years older than Perrineau, and who wears the world’s worst prosthetic during the film – seriously, people, the fake arm is so absurdly long, we know he’s hiding a perfectly functioning hand in there, and maybe a couple of apples as well!).
Auggie encounters an old flame (Stockard Channing) who tells him that he has an 18-year-old daughter(Ashley Judd), and she’s in trouble, pregnant and addicted to crack. He’s sure she can’t be his, but gets roped into a rescue mission all the same.
This movie is meant to be enjoyed the way a cigar is, appreciated in puffs and wisps at a time, taken in and held. It’s a talky movie – it’s about the art of storytelling and focuses on the everyday, so don’t expect it to “pick up.” It’s meandering. It’s not just taking its time getting somewhere, there actually is no destination.
Director Wayne Wang worked very closely with writer Paul Auster, and it shows. This is as “literary” as a movie is capable of being – any more so, and Keitel would have sat on a stool and simply read aloud from a book. The script is all meat, no gristle, and I’m sure it’s an actor’s delight. It belongs to the slow movement for sure, I’m just not sure I could bear to be part of it for much more than the film’s 112 minute running time. Keitel’s “Christmas story” toward the end of the film is a particular combination of gruelling and rewarding. Great story, but it’s just one very long take, something like 13 minutes, just Keitel’s face as he tells the story, the camera slowly closing in on it, and finally just his eyes.
And hey, if moody soliloquies don’t do it for you, there’s always this: it won an MTV movie award for best sandwich in a movie (ham and cheese). Praise be.