Holy Smoke  (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes

Well, Dicaprio made a really bad movie after Titanic, so I guess his Big Boat co-star didn't want to be outdone. About all I have to say is that this is Jane Campion's worst movie. When you consider that The Piano is her best movie, and knock that down a few levels, you'll get the idea.

Winslet plays an intelligent Aussie from a dysfunctional and idiotic family. She goes searching for the meaning of life, and seems to have found it at an Indian Ashram. And you know they are enlightened there, because they sing along with Neil Diamond songs. Well, her Aussie family is worried about her, since they can't imagine her becoming part of any religion whose gods look like multi-headed monkeys. Instead, they want her to come back to a sensible religion whose gods look like stockbrokers. Natural enough.

Mum lures her back to Oz with a cockamamie story about her father dying, and when Winslet gets to the family homestead, they introduce her to a cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) who intends to "exit" her from the clutches of the Upanishads. Keitel starts out as a thorough professional, and he knows his material. His grasp of religion and psychology, and his extensive experience with other women who have followed the same path, are capable of swamping Winslet, as she soon realizes. But she doesn't want to be swamped, so she does the only thing you can do when you can't win a game you want to win - she changes the rules.

Locked away with Keitel for three days, she changes the Jeopardy category from "knowledge of religion," which Keitel dominates, to "seduction," and this one she wins easily. She is a lush-bodied young woman, and Keitel is a geezer with dyed hair, tons of sexual insecurity and some not-so-suppressed misogyny. She seduces him, humiliates him about his age and his technique and his dick size and anything else she can dig up, and then deliberately leads him into ever more degrading activities, then finally discards him when he becomes emotionally dependent on her. He ends up broken, crawling through the outback in a dress and lipstick, begging her not to walk away.

In an epilogue, Winslet has not only returned to India, but has taken her mum with her! Keitel, on the other hand, has gone back to his girlfriend and they have had twins. But Winslet and Keitel admit to each other in postcards that there really was some special deep connection between them.

Holy smoke, was this a bad movie. Oh, bad, bad, bad. It is meant to be satire, I suppose. I guess it is supposed to be ironic that her idiotic and unhappy family would actually think happiness in an ashram could somehow be worse than what they have. It is supposed to be ironic that this woman who outsmarts the brilliant cult deprogrammer is suckered in by a moronically simplistic guru. It is supposed to be ironic that the controller loses all control and ends up whimpering in the desert. I think all of this is supposed to have some humor, or social satire, or something. Unfortunately, the Campion sisters (director/writer) have somewhat of a handicap in producing satire: they have no sense of humor. You know how in a comedy people will do things they would not normally do in life. When a bank teller gets a hold-up note in a comedy, he will correct the grammar. This is strange behavior, but we enjoy the absurdity because it is funny. Now take away the sense of humor and strange behavior is just strange and irrational. When Harvey Keitel crawls through the desert in a dress, holding on to Kate Winslet's sizeable leg, crying and begging, this is supposed to be funny, since he was supposed to have complete control in the relationship, and he was reduced to nothingness. But, of course, it isn't funny, so we are simply left with Harvey Keitel in a dress, whimpering.

In one scene, we are symbolically shown the emptiness of the family's life in Australia  -  everyone lives in nearly-identical houses. Funny stuff, eh? And plenty original.

Jane Campion has made three full-length films since The Piano, and their IMDb scores look like something out of Fred Olen Ray's filmography:

  1. (5.72) - The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
  2. (5.61) - Holy Smoke (1999)
  3. (5.21) - In the Cut (2003)

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic 1.85

  • very dark transfer

  • no features



Kate Winslet did frontal nudity, but she was obese at the time, so the turn-on value is minimal.

Harvey Keitel: bum.

Tuna's notes


I agree with most of what Scoop said. It is not a very good film. The plot was full of holes, the acting was poor, the photography was dark, and the attempts at humor fell flat. I did find a very few things to like about it. It is the story of an Australian family who hires Harvey Keitel to deprogram their daughter, Kate Winslet, after she fell under the spell of an Indian Guru while on vacation.

Having read reviews before I watched it and therefore knowing that this was a bad film, I had low expectations, which allowed me to be as alert at the end as at the beginning. At the end of the film, a sun-baked Keitel is laying on the desert sand and sees Winslet as a six-armed Hindu Goddess in the distance. Incidentally, one of the good things about the film was some computer generated artistic effects, and this was one of them. Then there is an exchange of mail. Kate writes Keitel that she is back in India, has taken her mother, and is enlightened, or seeking enlightenment. She also comments that there was something real between her and Keitel. He responds that, after she left, Pam Grier forgave him, took him back, and he had twins and was working on his second book. He also hinted that he would leave it all for Winslet. 

Based on this rather flimsy evidence, I think the film asks us to examine why cults that we are not members of (like Winslet's Baba cult) are more wrong than cults we are members of (like Christianity). In fact, Winslet deprograms Keitel, and they are both better for it. It is my feeling that the humorous moments are there for comic relief, and do not indicate a satire. While most of the humor didn't work for me, I did like using a live sheep for a coffee table, and Keitel in drag is a hoot. Of course, I may be giving the author too much credit. I still don't understand the sequence of Kate's seduction of Keitel. She walks up to him stark naked and asks him to kiss her. He refuses. Then she pees down her leg, and he suddenly can't resist her.

Some say the dark images were probably a result of the transfer. I don't think so. Many of the scenes are back-lit, some with available light, such as sunlight through a window. This resulted in too much contrast between the lightest light and the darkest dark, which oversaturated the image in the light areas. The only way to solve this was to darken everything. Which brings me to another thing I found to like -- they attempted a lot of innovation in the photography and had some nice set design. Some of the photography worked.

Memorable quotes:

Winslet to Keitel: "I didn't go to Baba to get my fuckedness fixed."
Winslet to Keitel: "What do you like abut me? Do you like my personality or my breasts best?"

Special Scoopy awards for excellence in criticism go to:

Order of merit in accuracy: James Berardinelli. "Are we really supposed to accept that PJ's double-talk undermines Ruth's deep, abiding sense of faith? Or that PJ, who has gone through this experience on 180 previous occasions, suddenly loses his own moral rudder? Beyond that, the relationship is not credible. I can believe that two lost souls trapped in this situation might seek sexual solace with each other and might even believe they have fallen in love, but Campion fails to get Ruth and PJ to the point where we accept that their relationship could evolve in this manner"

Order of merit in humor: Austin Chronicle: "It seems disingenuous of me to tear into a filmmaker as obviously talented as she, but, my goodness, what an awful, muddled load of codswallop Holy Smoke! has turned out to be."

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: two stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 1.5/4, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • Domestic box less than $2 million.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a D no matter whether evaluated as a satire or a drama. It's just bad. Even Winslet's usual nudity was disappointing because of her size at the time". Tuna said, "While the film as a whole had problems, there was enough of merit in it for me to make it worth the watch. C-".

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