Jane Campion (“The Piano”) fosters Kate Winslet’s post-“Titanic” desire to do nothing but weird stuff in her disjointed, humor-so-subtle-it’s-not-funny “Holy Smoke.”
Winslet plays Ruth Barron, a young Australian woman who, while visiting India, has gotten tangled up with what is apparently a cult of mystics and bamboozlers, though it might just be an ordinary Indian enlightenment movement. Her friend, Prue (Samantha Murray), scurries back to Sans Souci, Sydney, to alert the family, and her asthmatic, delightfully scheming Mum (Julie Hamilton) goes off to India to find her.
She tries to lure her back by telling her that dad (Tim Robertson) has had a stroke and is dying. When this fails to convince Ruth, Mum has a REAL asthma attack and must be flown, emergency-like, back to Australia. Ruth goes with her and is, to say the least, a bit angry to find Dad golfing instead of dying.
Meanwhile, the family has already sent for PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), an American who is supposedly the best in the business when it comes to de-programming brain-washing cult victims. All they have to do is get Ruth to agree to spending three days alone with him, and he’ll fix her.
The film’s first problem comes here, when Ruth agrees WAY too easily to this system. If she were a little unsure of her new-found faith, one could see her going along with this, in a moment of spiritual weakness. But Ruth is fully committed to her spirituality, and agreeing to be de-programmed by PJ is ludicrous.
Nonetheless, off the go to an isolated cabin in the outback. There’s some mumbo-jumbo talk about religion and spirituality for a while, with neither character saying anything terribly insightful. Next thing you know, Ruth is starting to crack, and she’s burned all her saris and is standing outside buck naked and urinating, and demanding to have sex with PJ.
Is this supposed to be funny? It certainly is humorous when viewed in the right light, but the dramatic musical score suggests that this is an important psychological moment, despite the absurdity of 1) Kate Winslet peeing and 2) anyone DEMANDING to have sex with Harvey Keitel. (It also results in PJ saying, the next day, “I’m sorry, Ruth, I shouldn’t have slept with you,” which is as hackish as dialogue gets — again, unless it’s supposed to be funny, which the film isn’t really clear on.)
There are also moments in which PJ is dressed as a woman, due to Ruth having dressed him that way. Again, the music says it’s serious, but the scene says it’s funny. The result is that it’s neither, because we’re not sure how we’re supposed to take it.
There is some certain humor in Mum and Dad’s behavior (upon learning that the top cult expert will cost $10,000, Dad says, “Well, how much will the No. 2 guy cost?”) as well as in some smaller moments here and there with Ruth’s concerned but inept family.
Half-way through, the film stops being about religion and faith and starts being a weird romance. That never develops very strongly, either, though, as we not only don’t buy Keitel and Winslet as a couple, but it’s over too soon and too unsatisfyingly anyway.
In all, it’s a hodge-podge of a movie, uncertain of its theme and unbalanced in its attitude.
C- (; )