Friday, December 29, 2006

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2006)

Everybody starts as stereotypes in Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, an adaptation of a novel by Christopher Buckley. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), lobbyist-extraordinaire is first seen completely outnumbered in an Oprah-type talk show that discusses the dangers of smoking. With him in the panel are an anti-smoking campaigner, a representative of the parents sector, and a bald, pale, and absolutely pitiful teener who succumbed to cancer from underage smoking. In a brush of sheer genius, Naylor suddenly turns the tide by turning the anti-smoking campaigner into an uncharismatic schmuck to the absolute dismay of Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy), proponent of a bill that would compel tobacco companies to put a skull and bones sign in every pack of cigarette.

Naylor is the charming mouthpiece of the tobacco companies, wallowing in the void of vague morality and merely awaiting a life-changing turnaround. Finistirre is the stern and morally condescending politico, unafraid to use his powers to forward his cause except that he does not have the gift of glib and resorts to underhanded villainy. There's Naylor's boss, nicknamed BR (J.K. Simmons), the unaccomplished Vietnam veteran with Machiavellian tendencies. BR and Naylor's boss Doak Boykin (Robert Duvall), legendary godfather of the tobacco business whose myth comes from surviving the after-effects of the discovery of the hazards of smoking. Partners in Naylor's unpopular crusade are the members of the MOD squad, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), lobbyist for the alcohol industry, and Bobby Bliss (David Koechner), front man for the firearms manufacturers. Reitman conveniently initiates his film with satyric simplicity. Instead of laying down cards of character depth, he marks them with basic tags. I like it. It made me feel comfortable, and it turned the narrative into a fun exercise instead of highbrow marginalization.

Slowly, the film unravels a trite although effective emotional core. Naylor's son Joey (Cameron Bright) is slowly appreciating his father's work, slowly discovering that he may also have a talent as well, slowly wanting to be closer to his inconvenient sire. When Naylor flies to California to convince a film lobbyist (Rob Lowe) to have superstars smoke cigarettes in Hollywood flicks, Joey tags along and sees the moral inconsistencies of his father's work, appreciating the skill of diplomacy that goes along Naylor's expertise. I thought Reitman handled the slow unraveling quite well; he maintains the initial breeziness of the satire without sacrificing the overall immediacy of the familial sidestory. Instead of changing gears, Reitman infuses the familial melodramatics into the satire, furthering the vagueness and interest quotient of the issues put forth.

Of course, let's be realistic. In the end, Thank You For Smoking barely has anything to say about the tobacco industry, or the vice industry in general. It's a mere satire that is endangered by its lack of seriousness, sacrificing bite for entertainment. I'm glad that in the center of everything is Aaron Eckhart, an actor who is highly underrated and is actually quite a proficient comedian. If it's entertainment that you're looking for, Reitman offers exactly just that. However, if it's a brandishing critique against the humanity-draining aspect of big money politics that is sought, expect to be severely underwhelmed.

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