Most everyone is familiar with the old saying about any given person's viewpoint of life being whether he or she sees a cup as half full or half empty. In general, such thinking shows whether a person is an optimistic or pessimist regarding what life might throw at them at any given moment and that the only thing certain in life is uncertainty (beyond the obligatory taxes and death).
While that "certainty" clause is true for any particular individual, when their family and friends are thrown into the mix, the effect is only compounded. Parents, for example, try to deal with their individual and marital lives while also hoping that they've done a decent job raising their kids so that they'll turn out okay. Most don't expect them to be lured into and then become devout defenders of some cult, but that's just another wild card that some families must face.
It's also the opening premise of "Holy Smoke," the latest film by Jane Campion, the director of "The Piano" and "A Portrait of a Lady." In it, a young Australian woman, credibly embodied by Kate Winslet, has already succumbed to the spell of such a cult while traveling abroad in India. Her charismatic and idiosyncratic family can't believe this turn of events, and thus set out to retrieve and deprogram her. From that point on it's a battle of wills between her and her American opponent, a slick deprogrammer with a perfect track record.
That setup is certainly intriguing and definitely full of potential. Just like life outside the movies, however, things then take an unexpected turn. That's because the film switches its focus from all things cult related to a sexually charged drama where the former aggressor and prey switch roles.
Although that sounds like an interesting development, it will unfortunately probably divide audiences into the old half full/half empty cup paradigm regarding its new course. While there might be some who enjoy the change, the rest of the viewers will probably find the film progressively becoming far less credible and simply too silly.
It's obvious that Campion and her sister, co-writer Anna Campion ("Loaded"), don't intend for the film to be a straight drama - the antics of the Australian family and other moments make sure of that as they give the picture a certain goofy charm. Yet, it simply becomes too unbelievable and then downright goofy toward the end for its own good.
As a result, the audience, like anyone slapped around by life's unexpected changes, mostly likely won't appreciate the direction in which the Campion sisters take the film and its characters. For a while, however, the film does contain a decent amount of intrigue, not to mention a great combative cast pitting Winslet's ("Titanic," "Hideous Kinky") character against the one played by Harvey Keitel ("Cop Land," "Reservoir Dogs"), a man old enough to be her father.
Both are stubborn in their beliefs and Winslet's character acts like a cornered wild animal when finally realizing what her family has in store for her. As such, that sets up what's supposed to be an intense, three-day deprogramming session out in the middle of nowhere. Due to the isolation - she can't run away because there's nowhere to go - the pending fireworks, as well as smartly written exchanges between the two, should naturally follow, right?
Unfortunately, they don't. While Keitel's character is worried that his "exit" partner won't be there to help finish their job, in reality he must subconsciously sense that he's really a lech at heart and will jump on his subject given the proper temptation and time. And that's exactly what happens, but instead of being disturbing, erotic and/or dramatically charged, the proceedings quickly careen downhill and out of control as the script falls to pieces.
While one could buy into the notion that Ruth's beauty could ultimately cloud PJ's judgment, the way in which he subsequently acts gives the impression that this could be his first professional case. For starters, little of what he does seems like it has the potential of deprogramming the headstrong young woman. It gets worse, however, when he so easily succumbs to her charms (or at least her nudity and a rather odd urination scene) and then begins to lose control.
Although a bit of that would seem natural and acceptable to the audience's better sensibilities, Keitel's character quickly unravels and does many more things - allowing Ruth to go to a club with her friends during the deprogramming, especially unbelievable since he now wants her all for himself -- that belie his reportedly perfect track record. When he finally ends up in a woman's dress, most viewers will have probably lost all hope and/or interest in the film as it limps along to its certainly less than satisfying conclusion.
Campion does manage to elicit halfway decent performances from Winslet and Keitel - at least for part of the film anyway - but then lets them down with a weak and underdeveloped script. As such, it drops out from beneath the two talented performers, leaving them dangling without a safety net, let alone much of a chance to save the film. Supporting performances - from the likes of Julie Hamilton ("Fresh Air," "Resistance") as Ruth's concerned mother and Sophie Lee ("The Castle," "Muriel's Wedding") as her libidinous sister-in-law -- are simply too far on the periphery, and thus don't get the opportunity to add much to the proceedings.
Despite a decent premise, the Campion sisters' script and resultant film is clearly half empty when it should have been at least more than fifty percent full before going into production. Although the setup and subsequent change of direction could have resulted in an interesting and dramatically charged picture, that's simply not the case here. As a result, "Holy Smoke" rates as just a 3 out of 10.