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'Blue' gets lost in a smokescreen


Here would be the proper way to see "Blue in the Face." You're at the Rotunda. You came to buy new shoes, a book, a Radio Shack computer, flowers, yogurt, something. You call home, and your wife or partner or someone tells you that a certain appointment or plan you had has been canceled. You now have an hour and a half to kill. You look up and note that the movie is playing at the shopping center's little art house, although it started a half-hour ago. What the heck, you think.

Here's how not to see "Blue in the Face." You rush madly through Washington traffic to get to the MPAA screening room under the iron mandate that THE MOVIE BEGINS AT 2 P.M. As a professional, you feel that if you miss even a second, you have let yourself and your employers down. You do a "French Connection" number with the car, plowing through crowds, beeping around a presidential motorcade, cutting through the Washington Post's cafeteria, breaking up a Ben Bradlee photo op.

The movie, as it turns out, is so casual, so loopy, so unformed, so improvised that to press formal expectations against it -- like, you know, getting there on time -- is to destroy it.

Basically, it's a footnote to the Wayne Wang film "Smoke" of a few months ago, which was rigorous, heavily plotted, fancily acted, smartly directed. But the guys -- director Wang, writer Paul Auster and big star Harvey Keitel -- had such a good time in making it that they didn't want to leave the set, which was a Brooklyn tobacco shop under the proprietorship of one Augie Wren (Keitel), a kind of earth father to the borough.

Thus this film, made in a week: a series of improvised scenes, some good, some bad, with Keitel pals Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Mira Sorvino, Lily Tomlin and Victor Argo, and even Madonna in an unbilled but highly publicized cameo as a singing telegram. They go nowhere slow.

This amounts to about 40 minutes of material; the rest is filled out with some hip monologues by rocker Lou Reed, a mordant, ironic presence who smokes and riffs at length in a most amusing fashion, though he's no Spalding Gray.

The movie is an afterthought, and to get with it, you've got to be an afterthought kind of person.

'Blue in the Face'

Starring Harvey Keitel and Lou Reed

Directed by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster

Released by Miramax

Rated R (profanity)

** 1/2

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