Thank You For Smoking
A film by Ivan Reitman
adapted by Reitman from the original novel by Christopher Buckley


The debut film from Director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters - and many more), from a script he developed and adapted based on the original novel by Christopher Buckley is a fine piece of satire that is loaded with cultural significance while still managing to remain laugh-out-loud funny. Especially for a first effort, it shows a remarkable amount of polish and restraint that puts its points across without belaboring them.

One has to judge a film (or any work of art) according to the context it creates for itself - its form - as well as in the larger socio-political and artistic context. Hence - the animated film The Ice Age - to pick a random example - is an amusing fable in the form of a "road movie." It tells a very familiar - one could say clichéd - story, about the bonding of an unlikely group of companions under conditions of adversity, where each character learns something about himself.

This is a classical form, that includes "The Musicians of Bremen" and "The Wizard of Oz" among hundreds of examples. The Ice Age doesn't add much to the dynamic, but it re-tells this archetypal story quite well, with well-drawn, if two dimensional (both literally and figuratively), characters.

The animation's great, the dialogue is snappy and there are some great set-pieces of "physical" comedy. Should we judge The Ice Age as deficient for failing to address issues like chronic poverty, social inequity or emotional dependence?

This prologue should apply to Thank You For Smoking as well. It's a satire, meant to point up the absurdities of socio-political behavior in the early 21st Century - not a psychological study of compulsive liars or the children of broken marriages - although it touches on both of these issues and many others. It's not a "message movie" at all in the traditional sense. It doesn't have a specific, universal moral to deliver. It's much more in the vein of Rob Reiner's Spinal Tap of any of Chris Guest's work - although admittedly more issue-oriented and less intimately personal.

The story focuses on the career of successful tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). During the course of the film Naylor's career spirals from a pinnacle of success represented by his masterful turn skewering tobacco-opponents on a TV talk show, to a nadir where his ethics and tactics are betrayed and "exposed," to a blackly-satirical "redemption" that is a nearly-perfect, ironic finish to such a film.

Are the characters two dimensional? I think that's arguable. It's very hard to have deep, meaningful character development in a 90 minute film, but I think the main characters here are quite well-drawn. Of course they suffer from a treatment that emphasizes (for the humor value) certain traits or foibles while downplaying or ignoring the rest of the story.

Satire sets itself a different standard from dramatic writing, exposée or documentary. This film comes off as a very effective and irresistibly funny (if occasionally black-as-Waugh) observation of the current "the bottom-line trumps everything" attitude of American Business and the moral lack of direction which that has bred both individually and collectively.

Incidentally, this is a subject on which the writer of the source material, Chris Buckley, is not-surprisingly well-versed, given that his father, proto-pundit William Buckley, was one of the first widely seen proponents of the "Winning The Argument" school of discussion - a technique which is succinctly summarized in the film - where the exploration of ideas and issues involved in a discussion become subservient to the object of "winning" the exchange by any means necessary.

If only for its contribution in revealing in a simple and clear way this technique and the mind-set behind it - the stock in trade of the Hannitys and O'Reillys - this film is worth seeing. But it goes much deeper. It explores the paradoxical combinations of confusion, denial and revolutionary spirit; of independence and conformity; of extreme anxiety and a sense of inadequacy coupled with a bumptious self-confidence, stunning dumb-luck and occasional flashes of brilliant insight that inform the collective American National Character today.

And in spite of the comedy, the film leaves a feeling of emptiness. This seems to be a result of the fact that it intentionally casts the audience into a "moral relativist" miasma, posing questions that have no ready answers. It is similar to the classic interrogation about whether, if it is "wrong" to steal bread in general, it is therefore also "wrong" to steal bread in order to feed the starving? And if that is not "wrong," does it become "wrong" if one has to injure or kill one person to secure the bread to save many? Etc, etc, etc,.

Such questions of morality cut to the bone of our social and political interactions across the spectrum from our daily lives to our National Policy. As long as we consider such questions "private" and refuse to debate and explore them openly - as long as we refuse to even consider them and remain in denial of their principal position in determining much of our behavior and the quality of our lives - we will have that "empty" feeling when asked to confront them.

One reaction is the upsurge in simple-minded, black-and-white, fundamentalist thinking that seeks to provide pat answers. Another is the muddle-headed, reductio-ad-absurdum of Bill Clinton's self-serving insistence that understanding his behavior was dependent on what you think "the definition of 'is' is." (It's a credit to this film that it manages to effectively satirize kinds of thinking that are both so absurd to begin with!)

These moral questions are realities that are painful to consider, but the film-makers here "gild the philosophic pill," as Sir W.S. Gilbert advised a century ago, with effective and hugely-entertaining comedy.

Reitman's screenplay is witty and concise, with no wasted energy and none of the self-conscious and self-congratulatory flourishes from which many would-be comedies by first-time directors suffer. The dialogue is crisp and multi-layered, with many seemingly simple statements packing several levels of meaning. Although it is broadly comedic, there is no mugging or pandering to the audience. Reitman treats viewers as adults and draws us in by leaving plenty of room to fill in the blanks of the story.

Individual scenes are composed as set pieces; the very stuff of trenchant political observation and reflection, like the best political skits of Saturday Night Live, Mad TV or The Capitol Steps. They are especially effective when presented with as little self-righteousness and partisanship as they are here. Individual episodes are well-written, well-acted and well-directed. Then Reitman combines them into a narrative with such skill that the seams don't show and the whole conveys a message that is much further reaching (and substantially darker) than the sum of its parts.

He's supported by a fine cast, whom he allows to do their best. Aaron Eckhart leads them with a witty, honest performance that allows Naylor's personal charm and "convictions" - the "good intentions" with which his personal road to hell is paved - to stand on their own. Like Bill Buckley, he manages to be delightful and loathsome at the same time. Eckhart doesn't hedge a bit, allowing his interpretation of Naylor to be ambiguous but not at all apologetic. Maybe he's been transformed, learned something from his experience - maybe not.

The rest of the cast is equally adept. Maria Bello and David Koechner as the fellow members of the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad - an inside joke among lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries - provide a wonderful comic chorus for Naylor's trials. William H. Macy, as the sincere and well-meaning but overmatched anti-tobacco-crusading Senator Ortolan K. Finisterre of Vermont (whose State, he declares, "...will not apologize for its cheese") provides a deft caricature of over-earnest (even though sincere) political posturing.

Naylor's trip to Hollywood, to try to enlist the movie industry in his scheme to romanticize cigarette smoking (and seduce impressionable young movie-goers to the habit), is a masterpiece of parody, from his contact's fast-talking assistant (Adam Brody), to the contact himself, Jeff Megall (played by Rob Lowe), CEO of Entertainment Global Operations or "EGO."

Naylor's boss BR (J.K. Simmons) is a portrait of the corporate type - self-serving, duplicitous, ego-driven - yet made specific and human (and therefore all that much more convincing) by Retiman's script and Simmons' portrayal. Wonderful cameos from Robert Duvall, as tobacco-industry legend Doak "The Captain" Boykin, and Sam Elliot, as former Marlboro Man, Lorne Lutch, add as much to the depth and complexity of the story as they do to its humor.

Naylor's interactions with reporter Heather Holloway, who is the architect of his temporary downfall - played with carefree amorality by Katie Holmes - explore the morally and ethically ambiguous position into which the news media have been drawn, and Holmes deftly conveys the cynical abandonment of ethics condoned by the "anything for the story" principle she - and the company for which she works - espouses.

And one can't ignore Cameron Bright, who plays Naylor's son Joey - a foil for and reflection of the "values" the film explores. That Joey's precocious intelligence and improbable innocence - explained by the fact that he has well-learned the lessons of denial from his father - are endearing rather than annoying, are a further tribute to Reitman's script and his directing of the young actor, as well as to Bright's own talent.

While singling our these actors, it must be said that there isn't one false note in the entire ensemble and that it is the aggregate of the contributions of every actor who appears that makes the film so effective.

The production values are high and add their own commentary on the action. Low-angle camera shots in the Senate Hearing sequence, for instance, emphasize the "made for TV" quality of the proceedings, while the Rembrandtesque framing of the MOD meetings evokes the monied elegance of such portraiture as well as Shakespeare's three witches.

The sets and production design are visual reflections of the film's satirical observations. The EGO building, and its CEO's office is one great example of this interplay, and The Club where Naylor and The Captain meet is another. Music is offered as mainly as a transitional element - a wise decision in a film where so much is happening all at once on so many different levels.

Reitman has set himself a difficult task, making a film that pokes fun at everyone without becoming simply cynical or dismissive - recognizing and respecting the painful realities that propel the comedy. What he has produced is one of the most successful political-satires I've ever seen - right up there with Dr. Strangelove and Brazil - both of which, incidentally, also left me sore from laughing while feeling empty and a little queasy. I think that's actually one measure of such a film's success!

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?