The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Thank You For Smoking

Originally published 3/25/06
Full review behind the jump

Full Disclosure
: The producers of Thank You For Smoking, David O. Sacks and his company Room 9 Entertainment, are the same people who purchased my screenplay Queen Lara, which they intend to make their next feature. And so I’m personally well-acquainted with them and even spent a day on the set of this film. One could suggest without being wildly-paranoid that I have an indirect financial interest in this movie’s success. I like to fancy that none of this affects my ability to objectively critique the film (I would not be so egotistical as to presume an endorsement from me will make a flyspeck’s difference to the box office), but I’d prefer to err on the side of over-divulging when it comes to any potential for bias.

Thank You For Smoking

: Jason Reitman
: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
: David O. Sacks
: Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliot, Rob Lowe, Adam Brody, Robert Duvall, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Kim Dickens

It was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said "
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." And it seems that in this age in America, facts are not so much revered as considered a grave annoyance to certain entrenched interests. From professional global warming “skeptics” bankrolled by ExxonMobil to “Swift Boat Veterans” who didn’t actually serve on Swift Boats to the campaign by religious extremists to cram “intelligent design” into the gap between the scientific and colloquial understandings of the word “theory”; in today’s cacophony of information, it’s often inconvenient to adjust to reality when, for much less money and effort, you can simply hire a lobbyist to deny that reality.

Thank You For Smoking
, adapted by Jason Reitman from the satirical novel by Christopher Buckley, is not specifically about cigarettes, they simply provide the playing field. This is a movie that assumes, optimistically, that its audience already knows that a) cigarettes are addictive, b) they will kill you, and c) cigarette companies would prefer that points a and b not be emphasized. This clears the way to the true subject matter: lobbyists, the handsomely-compensated sophists who, squid-like, spray clouds of rhetorical ink in the face of irritating facts. It’s a profession that, as Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) explains to his son Joey (Cameron Bright), requires “a moral flexibility most people don’t have.” Say that line to yourself, see how it linguistically casts a catastrophic personality failing as a rare strength, and you understand how Nick Naylor operates. Thanks to Reitman’s witty script and Eckhart’s perfectly-pitched performance, watching him operate is a whole lot of fun.

Comedy is the genre for people who never learn their lesson, from The Merry Wives of Windsor on up to Frasier. And, since he isn’t in our world where he can do real harm, we’re happy to have Nick Naylor be exactly who he is, since it’s not in his design to enjoy life as anything else. Glib, supremely confident, and with a “For Sale” sign proudly dangling from his moral compass, Naylor is the most gab-gifted spinmeister going. And he needs to be in order to advocate for a product that kills over 1,000 people a day.

This is about as much as the movie has to hang its hat on. Few of the conflicts which bubble up have enough staying power to be considered a plot; it’s more of a breezy tour through the world Naylor occupies, carried by his undeniable charms and a wicked sense for unsparing mockery.

He sits for regular lunches with “The MOD Squad” (it stands for Merchants of Death), lobbyists (Maria Bello and David Koechner) for similarly galling but statistically less-lethal products. He tries to incorporate the proper rearing and education of his son into his lifestyle with surprising results. He makes a pilgrimage to the offices of Hollywood superagent Jeff Megall (a very funny Rob Lowe) in order to make smoking cool in the movies again. He drops in on “the original Marlboro Man” (Sam Elliott), who now has cancer and is angry about it. An aggrieved domestic terrorist makes a threat on his life. And an ambitious reporter for the deliciously-named “Washington Probe” (Katie Holmes), prepares a profile on Naylor while dropping salacious hints about wanting to know “where the devil sleeps”.

The pleasure lies not in what Naylor is doing but how he navigates each of these challenges using only his gift for teasing human nature into spider webs of satisfying argument. It’s a superb showcase role for Eckhart, who in his sunny way gets to be as frighteningly persuasive as Michael Douglas was when he argued “Greed is Good” in Wall Street. It’s also one of the movie’s lost opportunities – his ability to turn the tables of any debate is so uncanny that you rarely concern yourself with how he’s going to triumph. William H. Macy does yeoman’s work as a fussy and moralistic Senator who wants to put a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs, but the movie never kids you that he’ll prove a worthy adversary even as the two head for a showdown.

It’s worth spending more time on the cast, which is generous with talent for such a low-budget film. Most co-stars rarely surface for more than a scene or two, and Reitman matches their abilities to broad character types in order to milk the most laughs out of their time. Robert Duvall deftly skewers the racist Old Southern gentry as julep-loving tobacco kingpin “The Captain”, and J.K. Simmons barks his way through the role of Naylor’s boss at the “Academy of Tobacco Studies”, bringing some of his patented staccato bursts of hot air over from the Spiderman franchise. Even Adam Brody of T.V.’s The O.C. gets a few minutes to shine as Jeff Megall’s enthusiastically vapid go-getter assistant. It takes exposure to workings of the movie industry to appreciate how truly merciless the Hollywood section’s lampooning is, but it should provide laughs even to the uninitiated.

For all the timeliness of its satire, Thank You For Smoking is not likely to emotionally engage, it covers too much ground and skips too briskly along the way for that. As a feature filmmaker Reitman has a rookie’s enthusiasm and willingness to commit to off-the-wall ideas. That has its ups and downs. But his most fruitful decision is to trust our ability to embrace Nick Naylor as the picture’s nominal hero. If the tobacco industry’s slippery secret weapon is the invulnerable exhortation that people can make up their own minds in a free society, it’s this movie’s most winning gesture – we get to know Nick Naylor in all his cynical glory, and we’re happy to share in his adventures for an hour and a half. As a society he’s bad for us, but you can’t deny that he appeals to a certain part of your brain.


Post a Comment

<< Home