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2.1.07

Holiday at the Movies: Thank You for Smoking

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Thank You for Smoking, directed by Jason Reitman (released on October 3, 2006)
available at Amazon
Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking: A Novel (1995)
Thank You for Smoking, an adaptation by Jason Reitman of the Christopher Buckley novel of the same name, was nominated for a Golden Globe this year in the category of Best Film, Comedy or Musical. There is no way to know if it will have any traction with the Academy, in the run-up to the Oscar nominations, but it does qualify by the date of its release for this year's awards. The specific target of this satire is the tobacco industry and its lobbying arm, but it takes aim at the influence of lobbyists in general, too. The protagonist, oily tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), meets for regular power lunches with alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and gun lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). Calling themselves the M.O.D. Squad (the acronym stands for Merchants of Death), they share strategies on keeping their deadly merchandise out of legal trouble. The sign behind their corner table reads "Take Pride in America: We Have the Best Government Money Can Buy."

Maria Bello, David Koechner, and Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking, directed by Jason ReitmanThe movie shows Naylor explaining the details of how he defends the cigarette industry in a sympathetic way. Naylor's major opponent, Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy) -- only a senator could have such a ridiculous name -- comes off as a self-righteous prig ("The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!"). The senator's latest campaign is to have an image -- an absurdly macabre skull and crossbones, with rotting flesh still attached -- affixed to every pack of cigarettes. The political establishment's manipulation of various causes, from Hispanic rights advocates (having a text-only warning discriminates against non-English speakers, of course) to lung cancer victims (the senator advises his aide that to be sympathetic you have to have a "cancer boy" confined to a wheelchair), is as repulsive as the lies peddled by Naylor. Anti-smoking activists even threaten Naylor's life. (Although not portrayed this way in the movie, the kidnappers in Buckley's novel are actually working for the tobacco companies, to generate sympathy for their cause.)

William H. Macy in Thank You for Smoking, directed by Jason ReitmanEven so, the movie never endorses the tobacco industry: the only time we see anyone actually smoking it is John Wayne, in a clip from the 1949 classic The Sands of Iwo Jima, and he is immediately shot. Eckhart is slick and repulsive as Naylor, with a broad smile and chin dimple honed for the hard sell. It is only through his relationship with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), that we perceive a glimmer of hope for Naylor's soul. He is certainly surrounded by people who are just as ethically at sea. Rob Lowe has a hysterical turn as film executive Jeff Megall, who strikes a deal with Naylor for big tobacco to fund a new science fiction epic in return for a major product placement. (Playing off of the topic of movie advertising, Naylor and his son have a heart-to-heart discussion at one point over a soda bottle that, although not labeled as such, is clearly Coca-Cola.) Megall's obsession with all things Japanese is lampooned hilariously, from the Zen rock garden in his building's lobby to a single nighttime shot of Lowe, dressed in a Japanese yukata at his office window, talking on his headset.

Robert Duvall is a stitch as Doak "The Captain" Boykin, the North Carolina tobacco magnate who is a paragon of political incorrectness. At his funeral, six black servants wearing peach jackets and white gloves serve as pallbearers and place one last ice-cold mint julep on his casket. The only miscasting was Katie Holmes as Heather Holloway, the Washington "Probe" reporter who seduces Naylor, only to betray him by publishing an article revealing all of his darkest secrets. Although she is very pretty, Holmes strikes me as at best a limited actress, and her three or four emotions are not enough for this role. However, the film could become a sort of cult favorite, because of Reitman's ingenious screenplay, with plenty of quotable lines. It makes one interested in his next movie, Juno, which according to Jason Reitman's blog, is in the production phase. The script is by Diablo Cody (née Brook Busey-Hunt), the author of the memoir Candy Girl, who also writes a blog.

4 comments:

Sarah said...

I still giggle when I think of that shot of Rob Lowe. Thanks for reminding me.

Akimon said...

the MOD acronym stands for Merchants of Death, not Masters of Death...
but anyho, thanks to Ionarts for a Smoking review of one of my favourite movies of the year,
Monika

Charles T. Downey said...

Monika, thanks for catching that error, now corrected.

Mark said...

Just watched it on Comcast, very funny/scary. I don't think Katie will be making any more movies like this, too bad.