** 1/2 Stars
Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel
Directed by Jane Campion
Writing credits: Jane Campion, Anna Campion
Miramax * 114 minutes
In Jane Campion's latest film, HOLY SMOKE, a character tells of the photographs of male movie stars she keeps in her nightstand drawer, at which she sneaks peeks at while she and her husband are making love. Campion is fortunate in that she can find people who will pay her to make movies in which she indulges her own movie-star fantasy obsession, in this case, one that always seems to involve Harvey Keitel and sexual coercion.
Memo to Jane Campion: HARVEY KEITEL IS NOT SEXY.
I'm sorry, but he's not. I don't care how much you may like older men, Harvey Keitel is not a sexy man. Maybe twenty years ago he could have passed for one, but no more. I am forty-four years old and even I wouldn't do the horizontal mambo with Harvey Keitel. Put Sean Connery or Anthony Hopkins into this film, and maybe we can talk. Maybe. Yet Campion would have us believe that no less a sex goddess than Kate Winslet actually succumbs to Mr. Keitel's skeevey charms.
Now, in all fairness, I must confess, I am not a fan of Jane Campion. I hated THE PIANO; hated it, hated it, hated it. I found it an offensive story of yet another woman who essentially falls in love with her rapist -- a plotline no less ghastly in an arthouse flick than when a soap opera does it, as GENERAL HOSPITAL did it some twenty-odd years ago. Keitel's peculiar rendition of "earn back your piano" strip poker in THE PIANO was no less abusive to Holly Hunters deaf mail order bride than Sam Neill cutting off her fingers. And in HOLY SMOKE, she does it again, as yet another Keitel characterization succeeds in winning the heart of a woman after coercive, unethical sex.
The script, penned by Campion with the help of her sister Anna, revolves around Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), whose name seems to be intended to be a play on the concepts of "truth" and "barren", though whether this is intended to be somehow quasi-Biblical, I'm not sure. Ruth is an eighteen-year-old Australian, who on a trip to India, finds spiritual enlightenment in the form of a guru named Baba. Based solely on a photograph of Ruth wearing a sari, presented to Ruth's parents by her traveling companion, who has not become similarly enlightened, said parents decide that she has been manipulated into a cult and is in need of rescuing.
Enter P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a guy who looks as if he's seen URBAN COWBOY a few too many times -- and thinks he's the Scott Glenn character. A bit long in the tooth for the tight black nylon shirt, tight jeans, cowboy boots and Ray-Bans he wears, he is a walking advertisement for mid-, or in the case of Keitel, late-life crisis. Waters is supposedly America's foremost cult deprogrammer, boasting 189 successes, and only a three percent recidivism rate.
The rest of the film revolves around the relationship between Ruth and P.J., as he attempts to break down the girl's resolve, and presumably, the cult's hold on her spirit, and Ruth, who is made of tougher stuff than he thinks, turns the tables on him, using her youthful sexual allure to push all of his afraid-of-growing-old buttons. In the penultimate scene, Keitel ends up sprawled on the ground in the desert outback, clad in a hideous polyester knit party dress and one cowboy boot (don't even ask how he gets like this), screaming "I love you!" after Winslet, who by now is fleeing him on foot, wearing a très chic pair of improvised shoes made of classic novels.
Campion had a real chance here to make a scathing commentary on the current wave of geezer/babe flicks, and indeed, during the strongest part of the film, in which Ruth taunts P.J. about his lust for young women, specifically her, it almost seems as if she actually will. However, Campion's own obsession with Keitel gets the better of her, and she tacks on a sappy, unconvincing conclusion that turns Ruth into just another hippy dippy teenager with a crush on her teacher, and P.J. into just another old geezer with a perfectly gorgeous and forgiving wife, but still lusting after teenagers; instead of the powerful nail in the coffin of this trend that Winslet could undoubtedly have hammered, given a different director.
And herein lies the fundamental problem with this film. Winslet, a powerfully charismatic actress capable of reducing perfectly respectable men AND women to groveling fools babbling about her wonderfulness, is far too strong a personality to make Ruth's ultimate capitulation to P.J.'s rather dubious charms credible. For a cult initiate who manages to reduce a deprogrammer to rubble, Ruth is just too easily manipulated -- by the guru, by her family (she ultimately goes willingly into deprogramming), and then by P.J. That said, Winslet alone makes this film worth watching. For one thing, she looks marvelous -- lush and sexy and sweaty. Campion recognizes this, and photographs her to maximize this quality, so we see Ruth the way P.J. does -- swathed in oranges and golds, all fading sunlight and candlelight. By the end of the film, the viewer is so smitten that we, along with P.J., see her as a multi-armed Hindu goddess. Her Australian speech patterns and tone are flawless, and she manages to make Ruth (a variation on the self-involved narcissist she played in HIDEOUS KINKY) sympathetic, even though she's just a bratty kid.
The problem with Keitel is not that he's bad, it's that he's badly miscast and at the mercy of a director who's completely besotted with him. Campion is just unable to let him do the skewer job on his character that it so richly deserves (and that in fairness to Keitel, I think he fully understood), for the fact of the matter is that P.J. is an ass. He's pompous, self-important, a cocksman well past his prime, unprofessional, unethical (sleeping with the client is not cool even for cult deprogrammers), and cheats on his girlfriend (Pam Grier, in a pointless cameo that only serves to show how terrific SHE looks at fifty-something compared to Keitel at sixty).
The story requires some long, drawn-out expertly-written verbal parrying, and indeed, there are some interesting exchanges about spirituality and philosophy between P.J. and Ruth early on, shot with an effective, if obvious, "circling sharks" camera angle. However, Campion is in such a hurry to get them into bed together, the sooner to glimpse the rather dubious pleasure of Keitel's chronologically-challenged posterior, that the verbal seduction game is as unsatisfying as the premature ejaculation against which Ruth warns P.J. in their first encounter. Even the laconic Ryan Phillippe was better served by his novice director in handling this kind of predatory seduction schtick, in the immortally trashy CRUEL INTENTIONS, than Campion does here; and for this I blame the script.
The other huge flaw in the picture is the portrayal of Ruth's family as a bumbling array of cartoonish white-trash idiots. Seemingly cobbled together as a mix of Luke Wilson and Jake Busey's idiot siblings from HOME FRIES, the entire family from John Waters' PECKER, and the bright color decorating taste of Alex' parents from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, they provide a kind of goofy comic relief that the audience in the theatre in which I saw this film found endlessly amusing, but merely serve to undermine the underlying tension required to make the film work.
From the two improbably dumb redneck brothers, one of whom is too dumb to realize how his wife (the movie-star cutout character, portrayed in an appropriately sluttish turn by Sophie Lee) comes on to P.J., to the potentially interesting gay brother (Daniel Wyllie) , in a role that ultimately goes nowhere), to toupee-wearing Dad (Tim Robertson) and asthmatic mom (Julie Hamilton), each family member is more unappealing than the one before. These bumbling fools, combined with the impact of how gloriously exotic and alive Ruth looks in her sari and how utterly frumpy and numb she looks in the "acceptable" clothes given her by her family, and by the relatively innocuous glossing-over of the cultists by the director, makes us wonder just which environment does Ruth more harm.
Frankly, the limited exposure Campion gives us to this supposed cult (and it seems as if she has done her homework neither about cults nor about deprogramming), combined with the cartoonish family, has the result of making the entire enterprise seem pointless. Why not just make this a filmed stage piece, focusing entirely on the psychosexual interplay between the two lead characters? That would have made a far more interesting film.
It's a rare film with no redeeming features, however, especially one NOT starring Adam Sandler. And while Winslet is capable of turning dross into gold all by herself (as she very nearly does here), Dion Beebe's cinematography is also worth a mention. Even the more desolate parts of the Australian outback are vividly photographed, with some of the most amazing sunsets you'll ever see. The conformity Ruth's parents seek for her is well-illustrated in an aerial shot of their suburban neighborhood, as evocatively cookie-cutter as anything in AMERICAN BEAUTY. And the few special effects shots, one of Ruth receiving enlightenment (the "third eye") and a final shot showing her as a Hindu goddess, are something special.
HOLY SMOKE is a film with something to say, but which fails to say it, despite Winslet's Oscar®-worthy performance, and is ultimately overwhelmed by the fundamental unbelievability of the relationship between its two protagonists. If a man had made this film, he would have been skewered. That it is the product of a woman's imagination makes it no more convincing. Meanwhile, when someone comes out with a movie in which someone like Elizabeth Ashley (like Keitel, born 1939) gets it on with someone like Tobey Maguire (like Winslet, born 1975), and NO ONE says it's absurd or disgusting, give me a call.
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