Thank You For Smoking

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Review #87 of 365
Film: Thank You For Smoking [R] 92 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $14.00
When 1st Seen: 7 April 2006
Where Viewed: UA Village 4, Boulder, CO
Review Dedicated to: Alexander “Plato” K. of Chicago, IL

The Platters - Thank You For Smoking

In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger took his second stab at comedy with the film Kindergarten Cop. In the film, as he often did with movies he directed, Ivan Reitman cast his own son as “the kissing boy” effectively, I suppose you could say, launching the career of Jason Reitman. Fortunately for us, young Jason advanced beyond his small roles in his father’s films to make comedy shorts and build a portfolio that would earn him the experience and know how to be able to turn Christopher (son of author and political analyst William F. Buckley) Buckley’s 1994 novel, Thank You For Smoking, into a screenplay and then direct the sure-to-be-a-classic film as well. If you have seen the preview, please do not worry that you have already seen the movie. What you have seen, rather, is just parts of the first few minutes and a few of the jabs at the Tobacco industry scattered throughout, but not the movie.

The movie is, first and foremost, about Nick Naylor (Aaron ‘you’ll possibly remember him as the evil billionaire in the Ben Affleck film, Paycheck’ Eckhart). Now, Nick is not your ordinary citizen of the USA—though he has convinced himself that he is a man of the people right down to jamming himself into coach class on coast-to-coast flights so that he can interact with his customers. He differs in that, first, he serves as the chief lobbyist for the Big Tobacco Industry—the film is set in the time before the Big Tobacco settlement with the USA government. Second, while lacking a brilliant college education, he nonetheless honed his debating and spin-doctoring skills beyond the science and into the realm of pure art. And, third, somewhere along the line, he convinced himself that malleable morals make his mortgage—in other words, his moral compass may sometimes point north, sometimes south, but always toward making money to pay for food, clothing, and shelter for himself and his semi-broken family. This latter part might not sound so bad, at first. Making sacrifices for family and offspring especially is common enough. The degree to which the nearly incorrigible Nick Naylor goes, however, would be considered off the charts by most reasonable people. Imagine, for example, setting out for the day on a mission to convince the original Marlboro Man to take a suitcase full of ‘gift’ money and not lambaste the Tobacco Industry any more for his lung cancer issues that “…cannot really be attributed to his use of cigarettes in the first place.” Ah, the “Yuppie Mephistopheles,” as he was described by one reporter in the film, at work! So, you get the idea. Always in the foreground for Nick is his relationship with his son Joey (Cameron ‘Running Scared (2006) and Ultraviolet’ Bright). He wants to be a good father, make that a great father. Unfortunately, his ex-wife Jill (Kim Dickens) really cannot bring herself to say a nice thing about him increasing his fear that his son will never truly know him. This tension between being a good and present father and working in a high profile job that makes him wildly unpopular with huge segments of the population of the free world, serves as a portal to the conflict in his soul. Fortunately, Nick has a ‘whole bunch’ of ‘great friends’: fellow lobbyists, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) representing alcohol and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) serving the gun manufacturing industry; and Doak 'The Captain' Boykin (Robert Duvall) head of the Tobacco conglomerate to help him get through life. Unfortunately, Nick falls victim to two wild plot twists that I’ll leave for you to discover on your own. Let’s just say that no number of friends could save him from his own fait accompli.

The story itself is quite brilliant. I feel, for some reason, the need to remind readers of this review and viewers of the film, that the book upon the film was based was published in 1994. That is 12 years ago. That is really a long time ago when you stop and think about it. This is not a movie made to take place today after the settlement after the admissions from Big Tobacco, etc. Please keep that in mind if you start to feel the film takes it too easy on Big Tobacco. Sure, Reitman could have revised time, but then he would have had a different movie. While, the bulk of the satire is directed at the Tobacco Industry, even so, the film necessitates general soul-searching by the end. “There but for the grace of [good fortune] go I.” (modified quotation) More over, I thought it quite cool that this story packs an even more relevant punch today, especially given its date of orign, if not a sense of urgency to action, given the generalized, world-wide malaise toward world governments due to a perceived general dismissal of the rights and needs of their citizens. For really, the message of the story is that perception is all we have. And, unfortunately, perception can be altered by deception. We perceive that a bag of chips still costs about a buck-99 as it did ten years ago. Yet, what we do not perceive is that the bag is the same size for $1.99, but it has more air and way fewer chips in the bag. Is this deception on the part of the potato chip makers? Of course it is. What else can you call it? They can claim all they want that they do it to protect flavor or freshness or prevent breakage of chips, but the reality is just weird. (1) It is wasteful of packaging, bigger-than-would-be-needed shipping cartons, fewer bags of chips on a truck so more trucks needed to carry same weight of chips and on and on, (2) it is misleading because people generally think the size of the package has some correlation to the quantity of product inside, and (3) it typifies corporate misunderstanding of its consumers who honestly do understand that prices have to go up over time with inflation and that either the manufacturers have to put in fewer chips or raise the price of the bag of chips—either way, don’t sell us half a bag of air and claim you are doing us a favor. So the point is that between governments spinning our perceptions based on deceptions and corporations following suit, one must work really, really hard to ferret out something as close to the truth as one can get any more. The very idea that we permit lobbying and spin doctoring to be considered legitimate professions says what about our society? And worse, what does it say about our citizens? Did we create our own malaise by becoming so far removed from our basic rights and commensurate responsibilities as citizens? It is certainly interesting to consider. So, I say bravo, to Mr. Buckley and Mr. Reitman for bringing us this opportunity to examine the world through this extremely funny satire.

Jason Reitman did a stupendous job directing and writing this, his first feature film. He assembled a wonderful cast, mostly mentioned already, with the exception of J.K. Simmons (Budd "BR" Rohrabacher) as Nick’s boss, Rob Lowe as Hollywood Super Agent Jeff Megall—serioulsy the role he was born to play, Katie Holmes as Super Minx Washington Reporter Heather Halloway, Joan Lunden and Dennis Miller as themselves, Adam Brody as Jeff Megall’s assistant, and the incomparable William H. Macy as the honorable Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre—a name that will live in infamy. He uses a unique style that blurs the lines between time and space between shots that give the film a surreal feel at times. The writing is sharp, witty, hysterical, cutting, and clever. The actors delivered great performances. Aaron Eckhart will now face one of two probable paths—huge stardom, lots of glory, great roles right and left, or a long series of parts which he might or might not choose to take where he would be playing Nick Naylor in a different job, suit, part of the world, etc. I will hope for the former for him because he did a magnificent job. When it comes to real comedy (pardon me, please, fans of Larry the Cable Guy), there has only been one other film, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion,that warrants mentioning this year. As much as I enjoyed that film, Thank You for Smoking has to supplant it as best comedy of the year so far. As a slight aside, a friend of mine was asking me to speculate why comedies don’t win the Academy Award® for Best Picture as a matter of course. Pardon me folks, but I must revisit the perception / deception words again. Turns out that drama is perceived to be so much more challenging to deliver as an actor because it is so emotionally charged. This is a deception that has been perpetrated on the populace for centuries. Reality is that doing comedy is much, much more challenging for an actor to deliver or a writer to write. Figuring out what makes people laugh and then delivering it in a way that makes them laugh is one of the hardest things to do. Especially since the same thing may not work the same way two days in a row let alone with a different group of people. Ask Meryl Streep if you don’t believe me. Ask her if it was easier to play She-Devil’s Mary Fisher or A Cry in the Dark’s Lindy Chamberlain. So, time to give comedy its due! See, Thank You For Smoking, and let some smart comedy that doesn’t rely nearly exclusively on effluence from human orifices to inspire laughter into your life.

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Reel Fanatic said...

Funnier than Family Reunion .. definitely a high standard! .. This finally opens here this weekend, and I can't wait

Harvey said...

Just watched it, agree almost entirely with your (very long) review, though I'd say your analysis of potato chip packaging is dead-on, except for the fact that potato chips are not addictive. Also, even though Aaron Eckhart did an exceptional job, the whole father-son morality tale was fl-acid, and the character needed to be pushed much further in order for this to be a classic. Time will only tell. Nonetheless, one of the best this year, w/o a dzoubt.