Seduced by Eastern religion while in India, Winslet is subjected to comedic cult deprogramming
A dingy, daffy, Australian-flavored comedy about conviction, faith and self-awareness, "Holy Smoke" stars Kate Winslet as a young woman seduced by Eastern religion while traveling in India and Harvey Keitel as the American deprogrammer retained by her panicked, sheltered, suburbanite parents to snap her out of a perceived fog of cult influence.
Directed by Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Portrait of a Lady") with a cheeky bent of absurdist humor, the first act tracks the heroine's fragile, twittering mum (Julie Hamilton) on a trip to India to retrieve her Guru-gripped daughter on the false pretense that her father has had a stroke.
After much conflict (on Kate's part) and consternation (mom's reaction to pretty much everything around her), she returns home, still swathed in a sari and "om"-ing to her heart's content -- only to discover she's been duped. Ruth (Winslet) is escorted to a remote outback cabin where P.J. Waters (Keitel), a cocksure "exit counselor" in snake skin boots and starched jeans, waits to poke holes in her metaphysical hot air balloon.
Of course, there are complications. Waters (Keitel) has done 189 successful "extractions" in concert with an assistant (Pam Grier) on whom he seems to heavily depend. When she can't get to Australia, he's nervous about going it alone with someone as strong-willed as Ruth.
But struck by her in more ways than one, he forges ahead anyway, and at first seems to be on schedule, deconstructing Ruth's resentment. Ironically, the dewy and desirable Ruth has his number long before he has hers. She seduces him and turns his program on its ear.
Campion (who co-wrote the script with her sister Anna) treats the religious aspects of Winlet's character with respect. While her hypnotic epiphany and subsequent conversion at the beginning of the film are illustrated with humorously surrealistic digital hallucination sequences, Campion never dismisses or even belittles the beliefs Ruth has embraced.
She does, however, have a bit of fun at Keitel's expense. As Ruth soon divines, P.J. Waters is hypocrite -- attempting to undermine her dogma when he's an utterly empty vessel himself, an irresolute agnostic in denial.
But the sexual encounter is where the hitherto mystical and marvy "Holy Smoke" has a mid-movie mood swing that melts down its momentum and credibility. The remainder of the story hinges on the hard-to-buy concept that this dogged deprogrammer with a perfect track record would be so completely susceptible to Ruth's inborn, come-hither sexuality. Without his assistant to keep him in check, she can practically make him go fetal with the bat of an eyelash. It's just too easy.
When the Campions' script drops the ball, the actors do their best to make up for it with chemistry and magnetic performances.
The intrinsically sensual Winslet delves headlong into her character's confusion after being emotionally uprooted half way through this assault on her spirituality. For a time, she becomes a wanton, wayward soul, grasping at anything tangible -- booze and sex especially -- in an attempt to find emotional footing.
Keitel plays with conviction his character's initial over-confidence and his later seizure of self-doubt. But his character is poorly written. It's almost impossible to believe he could have had 189 "clients" before without meeting a single subject besides Ruth who could mess with his head the way he messes with theirs.
"Holy Smoke" continues to get more dodgy the closer the closing credits draw. Campion's comedy takes a hike in the last couple reels, too. Even the laughs provided by Ruth's eccentrically trashy family (pudgy papa in Speedos, sexpot sister-in-law throwing herself at Keitel) slow to a crawl, as it becomes more obvious she's the most grounded of them all.
Campion is a very good visual director, and this picture is a handsome affair -- especially in her photography of the sumptuous Winslet and the golden-red desert setting. (Although can somebody please tell me what's with all these pointless female potty scenes in recent art house flicks?)
While "Holy Smoke" is burdened by some leaps of faith and inconsistancies, they don't degrade the film enough that it loses its charisma. It's a movie you enjoy, even though you wish it had been better.