Review: 'Smoke Signals' not too hard to read
Web posted on: Monday, July 06, 1998 3:26:53 PM
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Director Chris Eyre's "Smoke Signals," which was written by popular Indian author Sherman Alexie and produced almost solely by Native Americans, exhibits a near-ironic way of viewing personal heritage that I'm actually quite familiar with. I've just never seen it properly portrayed on the screen before. It's a very welcome, inviting viewpoint, but Eyre, and, especially, Alexie, really don't get much of anything right (or make much of anything interesting) except the movie's tone.
Alexie has been quoted as saying that he hopes this film will open doors for Indian filmmakers in much the same way that Spike Lee's work has increased the American audience's awareness of black directors. Blandly conceived, "Smoke Signals" is no great shakes, but it has its moments, and its occasionally playful dialogue could be the spark that sets the fire Alexie is hoping for.
The plot could politely be called minimalist. But storytelling, oddly enough, lies at the heart of the non-story. Adam Beach and Evan Adams star as Victor and Thomas, two long-time friends who take a Greyhound bus trip from their reservation in Idaho to Phoenix to pick up the ashes of Victor's recently deceased, but long-estranged, father (Gary Farmer, who's very good).
Believe it or not, that's the bulk of it. There is, however, an opening sequence outlining a tragedy that brought these two travelers together when they were just newborns. This pivotal moment is then fleshed out with flashbacks as the movie continues. Back in 1976, Victor's father drunkenly sets fire to a home while celebrating the Fourth of July, killing several relatives in the process, but he manages to rescue the two babies from the inferno.
While Victor more or less views this as the mistake that led to his often unfortunate existence, Thomas sees it as yet another story that needs to be told, revisited over and over again in order to get at the truth of their struggles. Thomas likes to talk, you see, and that's a big, fat problem when it comes to the movie as a whole.
If the guy were as clever as we're obviously supposed to think he is, the movie probably would have done the trick, but Thomas is an annoyingly written, annoyingly performed character. I've read one critic who referred to him as "a goober," and I'll be damned if I can come up with a more appropriate word to describe him.
Adams gives one of the more ill-conceived performances of the current movie season, turning Thomas from the amusing mystic that Alexie hopefully intended into a rather grown-up looking 12-year-old with an obsessive streak a mile wide. His stories just aren't all that absorbing, and Victor is completely within his rights to start making faces whenever Thomas starts another spiel. That Adams tries to force-feed us Thomas' optimistic approach to life solely by grinning like a maniac makes him all the more unbearable.
So it's a nice try that might serve as a decent video rental. There are a lot of stories in this country that aren't getting told, and "Smoke Signals" is a rare step in the right direction. As far as the Native American experience goes, it sure as hell beats something like "Dances With Wolves," a white guy's movie dressed up to look like it's actually about Indians. (It's Kevin Costner who heroically rides off into the sunset, not any of the Lakota people.)
I hope to see more of this sort of thing in the future. I'm also hoping it'll be done with a little more depth and flair.
"Smoke Signals" contains no bad language that I can remember. Suitable for pretty much everybody, but try to be forgiving when it comes to Adams' cutesy blabbing. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13.
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