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Weekly Alibi Reservoir Dingoes

By Os Davis

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  If your daughter's been brainwashed by an Eastern guru, the moral of Holy Smoke may be to call in The Wolf.

OK, so maybe Harvey "The '90s Fixer-Upper" Kietel's presence herein was merely good casting sense, but come on! That's Jane Campion in the director's chair, the New Zealander whose works -- flicks like An Angel at My Table, Sweetie, Portrait of a Lady and her seminal The Piano -- have consistently defied neat summation. While differing grandly from one another, each work presents a catalogue of characterization and wildly varying style within. And each is more tweaked than the last.

Holy Smoke stays true to sweet Jane's antics, its plot whipping about from Neil Diamond intro ("Coldwater Morning," though, not the seemingly more appropriate "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show") to free-wheeling expatriates looking lost in India to suburban Sydney to sparse Down Under deserts. At center stage is Ruth (Kate Winslet), an Australian lass finding herself on the subcontinent in -- shades of her previous pic Hideous Kinky here -- a vague spiritual quest for "the real stuff."

Said "stuff" comes to Ruth in the "truth" and "love" of Far East guru Baba; Campion demonstrates revelation beautifully, in one of her now-trademark surreality bites. (Remember hundreds of circling Malkovich mouths in Portrait?) Momma and Poppa are none too pleased, however, when one of Ruth's former traveling companions returns from India with tales of "freaky hypnotism." After managing to coax Ruth back to her home country -- "Your father and I are pleased you're fulfilled," Mom wheedles. Yeah, surrrre -- it's time for more desperate measures. It's time to call in The Wolf.

Okay, so technically Harvey "let's go get a taco" Kietel's Holy Smoke character is a "cult exiter" named P.J. Waters, but come on! By the time he delineates his three-step deprogramming system to Ruth's concerned parents and an assemblage of wacky Aussies (more on them later) both characters and audience believe that rehabilitation is as easy as cleaning up splattered brains from a back seat. The shades-totin', jeans-wearin', cigarette-smokin' P.J. has arrived to kick some ass ... but wait 'til he gets a load of Ruth.

Holy Smoke ignites from P.J. and Ruth's first meet at Mt. Emu Farm (it's right near Wee Wa; surely you've heard of it), and this departure point marks the movie's true genesis. As thickly-laid layers of character are stripped away in the three-day halfway hut deprogramming sequences, audiences realize that Campion has taken them on another twisting, turning, often flat-out bent psychological trip. Admittedly, the detours -- shocking and startling -- are not always easily palatable. On the other hand, Campion has a couple of movieland's most believable, natural talents to jump through her tricky hoops.

Remaining watchable as long as Winslet and Kietel occupy screen space, the sole critical mystery of Holy Smoke involves Campion's decision to pepper her script with the traditional cute 'n' humorous Australians (the slightly thick, beetle-browed bubba; the beery dad, etc.) which all post-Priscilla Down Under films must contain. Inoffensive and titter-inducing these second bananas may be, Holy Smoke suffers from a lack of focus that Campion wisely avoided previously in the stripped-down Portrait of a Lady. And at 116 minutes in length (requiring a good flex of those attention span muscles) any time wasted is too much for a film that cries for an editing. A Pam Grier cameo doesn't feel right, either, despite a slight shedding of light into P.J.'s past.

OK, so maybe Holy Smoke is lengthy and heavy, but come on! This here's a Jane Campion film, guaranteeing an uncompromising vision as rare as an oasis in the Outback. Definitely different.

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