Complaint 89.4

Just Puff, Don’t Inhale: A Review of a First and Last Date Presented as a Cinematic Triumph
by John Pruitt

“How is it that this is your first time in a cigar bar?” a deep voice asks as the opening credits roll over clinking glasses and muffled chattering. To the right of the screen, the camera pans over Milwaukee’s apparent aristocracy. The women sparkle, feigning helplessness with a borrowed Zippo, giggling and turning for help from inflated men who compete with one another with camaraderie and uncensored bantering, comparing callouses on thumbs best for flicking the flint wheel. They’re the suburban folks you can smell through the celluloid, Bloomingdale’s perfume counter mingling with Axe body wash and the smoke from CAOs, Ashtons, and Camachos. The women ad lib, mimicking what they see on The Bachelorette and Love Island, taking copious notes on seducing a rich man over twelve episodes. The men wander off screen to order a second round.

These exchanges tell you most of what you need to know about Just Puff, Don’t Inhale, a cautionary tale in the form of a romantic comedy and a reminder to wipe the steam from your glasses before dating someone wealthy. The sparse action leaves room for introspection in the film’s single location at Shaker’s Cigar Bar, where John, the director and protagonist, unimpressed with the nouveau riche whose space he’s been invited into by his date, Rick, tests his own wardrobe and Rick’s palate. Told from John’s perspective, this actor — new to the screen — guides us through his evening, exchanging Rick’s crisp dollars for cocktails while Chicago’s David Weld and the Imperial Flames perform a live soundtrack of cover songs on par with the revue It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.

The action centers on John and Rick relaxing on a leather couch, feet propped on the largest of three wooden nesting trunks, Rick educating John on the proper way to roll cigar smoke in his mouth. In a condescending tone, Rick turns John’s face toward him with a finger to the chin, advising him to “Just puff, don’t inhale.” Obviously a novice smoker, John fumbles through the technique and stares at the cigar as if wondering why smoke if not to inhale. The camera cuts to Rick, a comely man in his mid-50s with a soft mist of black and gray goatee, the president and CEO of a human resources outsourcing start-up in need of investors. Filling the screen with his entire being – appropriate for such an egotistical character — and stylized with iconography reminiscent of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, the camera itemizes his outfit:

Charles Tyrwhitt Italian herringbone jersey jacket in charcoal
Ralph Lauren royal blue end-on-end poplin shirt
Emporio Armani pure cotton crew neck undershirt
Alexander McQueen tuck buckle belt
Gucci straight-leg dark denim pants
Calvin Klein khaki patterned dress socks
Christian Louboutin lace-up calf skin dress shoes
Tommy John Second Skin gray boxer brief with pine plaid waistband
Cartier black acetate square-framed glasses
Spritz of John Varvatos XX Indigo

As a thought bubble appears above John’s head, asking “Who’s John Varvatos?” the camera scans his own equally attractive but more economical ensemble for contrast:

Gray checked sports coat purchased at a second-hand store in Athens, Ohio
Apt. 9 premier flex spread-collar white dress shirt purchased with Kohl’s Cash
Charcoal comfort fit Dockers purchased during the same visit to Kohl’s
Plaid purple and gray tie missing the tag
Black leather slip-on shoes from Rogan’s
Black plastic rectangle glasses from Zenni
Hanes Ultimate soft and durable black crew socks
White crew neck undershirt, also Hanes
Red and white striped cotton stretch boxer briefs, also Hanes

Herein lies a central question of the film: Can you pass in and out of your class identity? In a pivotal scene, Rick produces an inner-pocket, money clip from his jacket and hands John a folded fifty to buy a Henry McKenna Single Barrel bourbon served on the rocks, and something for himself. As John stands, he acknowledges the rawness of the full-throated vocals of Ma Rainey’s Prove It On Me Blues penetrating the smoke. Asking if he likes the band, Rick replies, “They’re all right.”

Rick’s coolness contoured by apathy, accentuated by his infantilizing direction to John not to inhale, contributes to this unfolding of a first and only date. John maneuvers through the crowd, squinting through the dimness, avoiding exaggerated hands waving the heads of smoldering cinders. The bartender, identified as Tommy on the tag pinned to his tuxedo shirt, exudes an ounce of humanity in a room populated by self-proclaimed deities, ethereal within the clouds of smoke drifting across the set. Genuinely apologetic, Tommy confesses that Shaker’s doesn’t carry Henry McKenna, so he offers the harsher and cheaper Wild Turkey.

The camera freezes on John’s smirk: “Wild Turkey will be fine.” He pays for both cocktails — his own choice a Beefeater gin and tonic — and tips Tommy with all of the change. Now appearing more comfortable, he lip-syncs the band’s sexy rendition of Fever and slowly and confidently dodges his way back to the couch. Sipping, grinning, and inviting John to sit while complimenting Tommy’s bartending skills, Rick savors his bourbon, professes his love to Henry McKenna while exposing a less-than-sensitive palate, and, again, reminds John to just puff on the cigar.

In a flashback to earlier that afternoon, kindled by a close-up of the spotlights catching flakes of dandruff and clippings falling onto John’s shoulders as Rick lightly strokes his hair, John visits his stylist Roger for a routine trim. In his first film, Roger, a southern gentleman in a short- sleeved white smock and wielding a razor and comb, delivers a scolding performance rivaling the best moments from Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker. Warning John that wealthy men seek out not husbands but employees required to complete a probationary period and performance reviews, Roger very candidly states, “I’ve known you how many years, and I know that you ain’t for him and he ain’t for you.” Dusting the loose hair from John’s face and shoulders, Roger shakes his head with sympathy and concedes, “I know you’re going on that date. You boys never listen.”

Toward the final scene, we eavesdrop on a pristine group of society ladies competing for the most lavish charitable donors. The ashes fall as they gesture — someone else will dispose of them. They’re all well labeled and sharing news that poet Brenda Cárdenas has agreed to write spontaneous poetry at the Milwaukee Public Museum fundraiser. Curious to discover more about Rick’s tastes, John asks how much he’d pay for a poet. Reaching for his money clip with a swaggering confidence, Rick replies, “I don’t really know any, but I’d like another Henry McKenna.”

With an offer to buy this round himself, John merges with the soundtrack. Easing into Motown with Aretha Franklin’s iconic Rock Steady, David Weld and the Imperial Flames underpin the rest of John’s night in a directorial choice pointing to the film’s most compelling conceit: the labels obscure the realities hidden beneath the ice cooling a shot of Wild Turkey disguised as top-shelf bourbon, and the plastic frames from Zenni stay on the nose just as well as black acetate Cartier square-framed glasses with golden arms. Tommy understands these nuances — he’s certainly seen them weekend after weekend from behind the bar — and as he serves this round, he asks John if he’s enjoying his evening.

“I’m having a wonderful time,” he replies, tossing down a $20 tip.

This provocative treatment of the thorny intertwining of classes takes us back to classic romantic comedies such as Whit Stillman’s directorial debut Metropolitan and Jon Chu’s more recent Crazy Rich Asians. Just Puff, Don’t Inhale will have you in the palm of its moisturized and manicured hand as it brings up memories of unnecessarily trying to impress a stranger. Perhaps these resurfaced memories are an unintended souvenir of visiting Shaker’s. It’s as charming and memorable and even as messy an experiment as your own awkward dates that linger long after the final condescending remark.

John Pruitt (he/him/his) has been teaching American and LGBTQ+ literature for the past several years and is now trying his hand at it. Our Lives magazine out of Madison, Wisconsin, published his first nonfiction piece, and he’s since published in ImageOutWrite and Queerlings.

Image by annca from Pixabay.