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Jane Campion deserves a lot of credit, in my opinion, for being one of the few women who has been able to be a prolific and successful film-maker. I give credit to any woman who makes good in an industry historically dominated by men. For that matter, I think I'd also give credit to any man who makes good in an industry dominated by women; or any person of minority who excels in an arena monopolized by people of majority.
That said, I must recognize and acknowledge that my rating is biased. I want to rate her high even though I have never been swept away by her studied, head-stuck brand of the extreme. I recall in The Piano as well: a strange, foggy story of a love affair between an intense Keitel and an equally intense, but much younger, beauty. Though Campion seems to want to delve into her heroine's psyches, she never musters enough courage to really plunge into what makes them tick. Her version of going deeper into a character is to have them soar into romantic passion, which in her world does not equal emotional involvement.
In a way, Campion's success may depend on this: she apes or adapts or agrees with Hollywood's decision to play to broad emotions rather than delve into the subtleties of being human. So her films, like most Hollywood tear-jerkers, rely heavily on belly laughs, teary eyes, and full frontal nudity.
Holy Smoke tells the story of a young Aussie, Ruth (hot and earthy Kate Winslet), who travels to India, meets the Baba Guru, and decides not to return to her predominantly dysfunctional family. Ruth's mom, who really does love her daughter, decides to have Ruth kidnapped and deprogrammed. Enter PJ (Keitel), the super-macho American "exit counselor" who is going to apply his simple steps to yet another lost young girl.
Uh-uh! Ruthie is no pushover. She is perfectly happy in her new religion/cult (depending on your perspective). Furthermore, she's a far-out, head-strong woman, and her bullshit detector is on overdrive in the presence of PJ. So strong is her will, and so unnerving are her actions, that PJ is driven into an insane, obsessive love for the young girl that causes him to blow much more than this particular job. In establishing Ruth's intensity, the script risks, and in my opinion compromises, the film's sense of reality a few times.
A few sex scenes are very hot. Winslet's full, young body in the moonlight is a lovely sight. Her peeing down her own leg wasn't a turn-on for either the Mrs. or I, but I did hear Howard Stern talking the other day about how pee-pee porno is among the latest fringe fetishist crazes. Is there a connection? Campion doesn't seem beyond going the extra mile to find out what will make her films hip.
I thought this movie would spend more time on the fertile playground of the philosophical and psychosocial differences between "cult" religions and mainstream life. But Campion paints both strokes far too broadly, so there's no reason for her to have Ruthie and PJ argue about the difference between Baba Guru's transcendental-all love and Ruth's family's sorry-excuse-for love.
Campion also broadstrokes PJ's machismo, making him a very unsympathetic man with extremely weak defenses. It's like building a sand castle and then knocking it down. So that we don't focus on PJ's stereotypical masculinity too much, there's also a stereotyped horny housewife character: also unsympathetic, also weak. The supporting cast is really nothing but sandcastles.
Ruth's lesson, though, is that human compassion is really the greatest good in life. All the other characters are handled two-dimensionally in order to give her this epiphany. Deprogrammed from the cult and back to her own dysfunctional type of love/hate, Ruth is ruthless with the hypnotized PJ, but an almost accidental reminder on his part brings her back to the purity of spirit-the striving-that let her into the cult in the first place.
For that reason, the film isn't a total loss. It slops its way through an overcrowded mini-van-full of characters in order to reach this one epiphanic moment. And, separated from the chaff, it's a decent dramatic scene. Much of the end of the film is way too exaggerated to be moving, but again, it coalesces around a single touching event.
I liked the leads: both Keitel and Winslet did well with what they were given. Winslet's film mom, I thought, did a passable acting job. The visuals are also good. Campion certainly does have a sense of imagistic beauty and dresses (or undresses) her settings and characters appropriately. One of her main strengths is her working relationship with Mr. Keitel, who almost always delivers a credible performance. With very little to say by way of summary, my review of Holy Smoke, a wispy film, ends here.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.