Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Witty Satire Of P.C. And Nicotine, Thank You For Smoking!

The Good: Funny, Good characters, Decent acting, Entertaining
The Bad: Plot gets fairly stale quickly, Pacing
The Basics: While Nick Naylor gallivants around the U.S. justifying the continued existence of cigarettes, he finds himself targeted by reporters, Congress and a hitman.

I feel like I have been watching a lot of documentaries lately, but with my latest viewing, Thank You For Smoking, I rationally know I did not. It's certainly a mocumentary, but it is written so real and with such clever attention to detail that it is almost impossible not to believe that it represents an expose into the world of Big Tobacco.

While Nick Naylor works through the morally ambiguous place life has left him as the voice of the tobacco industry, he finds himself kept from his son and fairly alone in the world. Naylor continues to view representing Big Tobacco as a job that is essentially about debating and he classifies himself as a king of debate. When the U.S. Senate starts a cry for even stronger warning labels on cigarettes, Naylor finds himself targeted by a reporter, a senator and an assassin. As his life spins out of control, his relationship with his son begins to become a priority and he begins to seek a new direction.

Sort of.

More than the tobacco industry, what Thank You For Smoking is truly about is the lengths our society goes to to cater to big business at the expense of human health. What the movie is truly about is freedom and choice vs. political correctness. It's an interesting argument and the movie is very funny.

Unfortunately, it's something the viewer tires from quickly. The pacing of the movie is seriously off. There are tracks of the movie that are slow and ponderous and seem to go nowhere, not even to building mood. Instead, the movie drifts between frenetic scenes as Nick Naylor goes from talking fast to driving slow. His relationships fade in and out throughout the movie at rather plot convenient times. So, for about five minutes his relationship with Heather - the reporter - is incredibly important. Then, she disappears from the movie for a significant chunk of time, pops up for two minutes, disappears until the end.

I can live with movies that have moments where nothing happens; in fact, on The West Wing (reviewed here!), one of the things that impresses me most is the amount of time devoted to reaction shots. The camera stays on characters at times long after the character they are speaking to has left the room. In Thank You For Smoking, there are long interstitial passages where we aren't learning more about the character or anything, the camera is just sitting waiting for action to happen.

Outside that, Thank You For Smoking works. It's funny and it's very intelligently written. Jason Reitman, who wrote and directed the film Thank You For Smoking has a great sense of comic timing. When Nick Naylor is talking spin, Reitman wisely keeps him smiling and moving. Some of the most dynamic moments occur when the only thing moving is Naylor's mouth and that takes some serious talent.

The talent that is evident from the first moments of the movie is in the casting. This is an accomplished and exceptional cast and it's clear that Reitman knows how to use them. Cameron Bright plays Naylor's son and here he does an excellent job of supporting the lead through subtlety and a strange dignity beyond his age. Kim Dickens and Maria Bello give wonderful roles that are too brief in the film a good shake with implications of depth that feel very realistic. Both make us believe their characters have significant backstory that they are bringing to the table. And William H. Macy, one of my personal favorites, does a great job acting as the virulently anti-cigarette Senator Finistirre. He is funny and gets out some of the most overly humorous lines with a straight face that is impressive.

It is Aaron Eckhart who the movie lives or dies on and he plays Nick Naylor impressively. I had never seen Eckhart perform before but he glues the viewer from his first moment appearing on screen. He is charming and disarming, perfectly timing a twinkle of his eyes or the barest hint of a smirk. His genius in Thank You For Smoking comes from his ability to deliver complex lines of dialogue that are almost entirely morally objectionable or ambiguous in a way that is absolutely convincing. We never once feel like we are watching a actor in Eckhart's performance (sadly, the same cannot be said for Robert Duvall in this). Eckhart convinces us of the reality of Nick Naylor and by the end, the audience is rooting for freedom almost solely based on his performance.

Thank You For Smoking is an ambitious project and it's easy to see why it took so long to bring it to the screen (and now DVD), but it's worth the viewing. It's very hard to say if this one is worth adding to one's permanent collection; I think it's definitely one to see before making that choice.

For other works with Aaron Eckhart, check out my reviews of:
Battle Los Angeles
Love Happens
The Dark Knight
The Wicker Man
Frasier Season Eleven


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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