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Thank you for Thank You For Smoking

April 12, 2006

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the greatest film satire of all time (meaning it’s about half as good as the collected works of Trey Parker and Matt Stone). All satires that aspire to Dr. Strangelove’s level of greatness – if not South Park’s – must be judged by three criteria: the freshness of their targets, the fearlessness of their execution and the narrative resolve never to go soft. Satire is the sworn enemy of sentimentality.

So how does Thank You For Smoking stack up?

On the first criterion, it’s fresher than an ear of corn in Iowa. Over the last 15 years, and especially since the Big Tobacco settlements of the late ‘90s, smoking has become the great bogeyman of (liberal) American society. It’s banned in most public places in the West and Northeast. Its advertising is limited to magazines, NASCAR and promotions at bars where girls use ID-checking devices to make sure you’re 18 that are more sophisticated than what the bouncer uses to make sure you’re 21. And as Jeff Megall’s serene superagent (Rob Lowe) aptly notes in Thank You For Smoking, the only people left in movies who smoke are “RAVs”: Russians, Arabs and villains.

Antismoking hysteria has reached epidemic proportions: secondhand smoke is almost universally considered a killer, despite studies relying on the flimsiest of proof; any state legislature looking for a quick injection of revenue can raise taxes on cigarettes and nobody makes a stink; and antismoking commercials now spend less time emphasizing the health risks of smoking and more time demonizing cigarette companies for having the gall to sell, and god forbid, market, a legal product. The antismoking crusade has had nothing but love the last 10 years; it was due for a good hating.

C3PO catching a naughty R2D2

I blame it all on C3PO catching R2D2 smoking a furtive fag in the bowels of the Death Star. Wouldn’t you need a cigarette if you spent everyday with a neurotic, repressed homosexual robot?

But perhaps the best measure of the audacity of the movie’s target – which is to say, the sanctity of its target – was my mid-50-something mother’s response to a trailer for the movie before a showing of Munich in December. With a look of disgust on her face, she asked, “Why are people laughing?

But picking an un-P.C. target is the easy part. How does Thank You For Smoking fare on criterion two, fearless execution?

One of the trickiest tasks facing all satires is the protagonist. If the premise of good satire is that everyone is hypocritical and corrupt, how do you concoct a hero that’s not hatable? Most satires take the easy way out, by choosing innocents, if not simpletons, as their heroes – think Forrest Gump, Being There’s Chauncy Gardiner, even South Park’s fourth graders. But Thank You For Smoking comes from the much rarer strain of satire (call it “The Bad Santa School”) where the protagonist is as vile as everyone else. In a world where everyone’s full of shit, we like Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, in a role he was born to play) because at least he’s honest about being full of shit.

Indeed, as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, Naylor beams about his B.S. He delights in turning familiar arguments on their head – he asks a Senate panel considering a sterner warning label for cigarette packs, “Why do we need a warning if everyone know it kills?” On a talk show with a 15-year-old cancer survivor, he wonders, “Why would cigarettes want to kill this boy? Wouldn’t we want him living as long as possible, and buying our products?” He is the ultimate devil’s advocate because, as a representative of an industry that kills half a million people a year, he nearly is the Devil’s advocate.

R2D2's cigarette

It looks like a Marlboro Red or Medium but I can’t be sure. I’d like to think he smokes American Spirits.

The film is clearly on his side; while we understand where Naylor’s coming from, his nemesis, Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy, who has the strange and dopey look of a lifelong politician) is sanctimonious, humorless and cruel. Otherwise, the movie’s satire is wonderfully egalitarian. It mocks Big Tobacco’s junk science as readily as it ridicules antismoking advocates’ fear tactics (in the movie’s best visual gag, Finistirre suggests a warning label for cigarette packs featuring a skull and crossbones where the skull looks like the guy from Edwin Munch’s “The Scream” if he were wearing a hockey mask and bleeding from his neck). No sacred cow is left unburned – even cancer victims aren’t safe.

On the third criterion, toughness, the film slightly falters, but not in the most important ways. The one American institution that escapes the movie’s sights is the American family; Naylor is a devoted father to a wide-eyed son, and his ex-wife is a sympathetic, put-upon divorcé. While the son is intended to make us see the softer side of Naylor, and he’s a useful device in conversations where Naylor explains himself, I wished the kid were a tad more conniving. Whenever Naylor and his son are alone together in a scene, the movie goes maudlin.

But on the most important score, the ending, the movie doesn’t go soft. In lesser hands, the climactic Senate hearing where Naylor and Finistirre face off would devolve into a martyr-ish mess where Naylor finally admits that smoking kills and that he’s been wrong all along. But the climax’s brilliance is that it allows Naylor to be completely honest and completely audacious at the same time; when Finistirre asks Naylor what he will do when his son turns 18, Naylor hems and haws and finally says, “If he wants to smoke, I’ll buy him his first pack.” It’s a funny and sobering moment because it makes clear that in modern America, freedom of choice is as much under attack as smoking.

There is one glaring problem with the movie, however: nobody is ever seen lighting up. We know that Naylor smokes – he reaches for a pack while his son is napping on his lap, but the pack is empty. There are other characters, like Robert Duvall’s Captain, who surely must smoke, but we never see a character even finger an unlit cigarette.

I think I know why Jason Reitman, the co-writer and director, chose not to show anybody smoking. He probably figured it would be a tough enough sell to get viewers to sympathize with a tobacco lobbyist without seeing him smoke next to his sleeping son. But Reitman’s choice is a miscalculation; the kind of people who are going to see Thank You For Smoking already have a healthy skepticism of antismoking advocates. They’re ready to see the likes of Finistirre skewered and Naylor celebrated. Showing Naylor smoking would complicate their sympathies, but not eradicate them. (Besides, the kind of contrarians who are drawn to movies like Thank You For Smoking are often smokers themselves.)

Moreover, there are some missed comic opportunities by not showing smokers. Think of the nicotine-fiending New Yorkers who shiver in the cold for a cig while passersby avoid them like a drunk hobo. Or the way cigarette-smoking travelers are forced into unventilated glass rooms in airports so frequent flyers can shake their heads at these modern lepers. Indeed, if the movie had shown the way smokers are ghettoized from polite society, many viewers would have more sympathy for the film’s message, not less.

But despite some missteps, Thank You For Smoking gets all the big things right. That’s something to be thankful for.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    April 18, 2006 6:41 pm

    The main thing I took from this review is that our esteemed crtic goes to movies with his mom. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but It bears noting.

    In all seriousness, I agree with most of your review. Thank You For Smoking stands with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut as the only significant, not to mention genuinely funny, big-screen satires of the past decade. This raises the interesting question of why good satire is so rare. Is it the difficulty of execution or public taste? Some combination of the two? Or perhaps other factors not occuring to me?

    The one point on which I’d quibble is Reitman’s decision to make the movie smoke-free. This may have much to do with my perspective as a non-smoker. (In my defense, I make up for this failing with hearty indulgence in other vices.) Many non-smokers have such a visceral aversion to the act of smoking that it may well have undermined, rather than underlined, his point, especially if Naylor himself had been shown smoking. While your point that it would not have had a negative impact on much of its core audience is true, I believe it may have alienated exactly that portion of the audience that the filmmakers might hope to persuade, namely non-smokers with a healthy skepticism toward political fundamentalists of all stripes.

  2. Micah Sachs (My Own Worst Critic) permalink*
    April 19, 2006 3:15 am

    Interesting question about why good satire is so rare. The interesting thing is that TV has been doing comedy of every kind — romantic comedy, satire, parody — better than movies for at least the last 10 years. There are very few film comedies in history that can stack up with the best 25 episodes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld and South Park (and closing in fast, don’t look now, it’s The Office — which is an even better satire than Thank You For Smoking). And a good chunk of the most successful film comedies of the last 10-15 years — Elf, the Wayne’s World movies, Austin Powers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin — owe their success to personas, and often characters, who were honed on television.

    But I don’t have an answer easily at hand to why good satire is so rare in the movies.

  3. Brad Glaser permalink
    April 23, 2006 4:08 am

    Might this have something to do with it being easier to laugh at characters we have come to know and embrace? After all, in day-to-day life we laugh at a million stupid little things that our friends say, and we don’t “get” the jokes of social groups to which we are only peripheral. I think, for certain kinds of humor at least, we may see this same sense at work in televized comedy. It may be that it takes us longer to acclimate to a point where we are comfortable giving our full-throated laughter to a character/premise?

    Of course, I just came up with this thoery after watching 4 hours of New Orleans election returns, so I may just be a bit punch-drunk right now.

  4. Micah Sachs (My Own Worst Critic) permalink*
    April 23, 2006 4:49 pm

    Very perceptive point about TV comedy. It’s true; you can’t really “get” Dwight Schrute or Homer Simpson without watching numerous episodes of The Office or The Simpsons. This intimacy then allows allows for a level of subtlety that movies necessarily lack. (In the same way that only I and my friends can appreciate the subtle charms of breaking beer bottles on our heads.)

    I got to thinking, though, about another thing you brought up: the New Orleans election returns, and implicitly, Hurricane Katrina. I haven’t heard a peep about anyone making a movie, TV show or play about Katrina. Having been through it, for the most part, what genre/medium do you think would be best suited to a reflection/portrayal of Katrina and its aftereffects. A disaster movie? A scathing satire of Brownie and Bush? I suspect Spike Lee is already figuring out how to make a racially charged current events drama — a la The 25th Hour — about it. Thoughts?

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    April 24, 2006 3:28 am

    I hadn’t considered the Katrina question before, but you gave me an interesting idea. I think a stage play centering on the lives of Katrina refugees of different classes forced to live elsewhere (Houston?) might be extremely effective in dealing with the subject. A film showing the destruction is not going to visually match Armegeddon or The Day After Tomorrow, so it might seem weak, especially considering the whole world was inundated with pictures of the aftermath. A piece that explored the reprecussions, personal and political, in a talky way would be more interesting to me. Maybe I should get working on this.

  6. Phil permalink
    April 24, 2006 9:13 pm

    Gentlemen, do you really think they would do another satire of the bungling’s of the White House so soon after “Wag the Dog”?. I also don’t think that due to the seriousness of Hurricane Katrina a disaster movie would work. Although as I write this the 9/11 movie’s trailer is running non-stop. Personally I have no interest in seeing that movie as I have severe misgivings regarding movies about “true events” when the actions of those are guessed by the writers. Granted we all know what happens in the end, but to preseume what actually happens on the plane as well is too much. (I had the same issue with the Perfect Storm).

  7. Micah Sachs (My Own Worst Critic_ permalink*
    April 24, 2006 10:19 pm

    A couple points:

    1) “Wag the Dog” might as well be from the Jurassic era in terms of pop culture. Since it’s come out, we’ve seen the rise of the Daily Show and Michael Moore, who have tapped into a cynicism so intense that political satire and political commentary are now one and the same thing. Further, there’s a movie coming out this week about a bungling George Bush-clone. It’s called “American Dreamz.”

    2) As for “true events” movies, I see your point, but how important, really, is it that every word spoken be what actually happened? We watch biographies as if they’re the word of God, but they’re highly edited, synthesized versions of history: historical characters are combined, events are conflated, timelines are collapsed, dialogue is fabricated. What’s so different about a movie like “United 93”? Besides, I don’t know if you ever saw the director of “United 93” Paul Greenglass’s first (?) movie, “Bloody Sunday.” It’s a recreation of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre by British troops in Northern Ireland, and it’s absolutely riveting. Another great example of the genre: “Black Hawk Down,” which I think is one of the best war movies ever.

  8. Phil permalink
    April 24, 2006 11:38 pm

    Intersting points on “true events” movies, obviously you have to take them with a grain of salt. I always thought that it was a bush league move by Billy Crystal to throw a scene in “61” where a guy throws a chair at Maris in right field. Perhaps my larger concern with United 93 and The Perfect Storm is that most of the movie is speculation, it’s not just a few things blurred for poetic license, it’s all poetic license. Also now that we are in an era of instand media coverage, I believe movies, books and films have to be more truthful to the viewer because we’ve seen or heard about it already. A “true events” movie like Braveheart, I could care less if the facts are correct because with the shoddy record keeping of something that long ago I am looking more to be entertained and if I am curious about the subject at all, I will read up on it. By the way start reviewing some movies I have seen alrady for Chrissakes, I am 0-3 so far, unless you count the R2/3PO commercial because I saw that.

  9. April 25, 2006 1:23 am

    But isn’t the fact that we already know everything that is to be known about a particular event all the more reason for artists to take artistic license? Why recreate something exactly as we know it to have happened? Where’s the art in that? I think a more persuasive reason to argue for “true events” movies needing to be, well, more truthful is that so few people watch or read the news — except maybe headlines on CNN.com, a vice I’m guilty of — that they look to everything else — The Daily Show, “true event” movies, “ripped from the headlines” crime dramas, standup comics, Michael Moore “documentaries,” talking heads on The O’Reilly Factor — for “truth” about the world. So all these semi-true genres then have a greater responsibility to telling the truth because so few people are getting the truth from the traditional source of TV, newspaper or even online news.

  10. Ryan permalink
    April 27, 2006 6:03 pm

    2nd vote for reviewing a movie I have seen. I am going to see Thank you for Smoking ASAP though.

    I also do not plan to see the Flight 93 movie. This country is ridiculous when it comes to the masses looking at events surrounding 9/11 and all other terrorist issues as good guys and bad guys. In the specific case of the flight, I would say there were clearly good guys and bad guys. In the case of going to war to erradicate the world of terrorists and bring freedom to the world, it’s not that simple. The idiot masses of the country though like to think so and a movie like this just gets them fired up again. If CNN was to run a story tonight on the premiere of a movie in Syria that glorifies the courage and resolve of the Iraqi insurgents defense of Iraq, our country would be sickened at such propaganda. I am very disturbed by how quickly we in this country and the rest of the world seek revenge. It is the most immediate emotional response we have. Sorry, that was more of comment on society than the actual movie. I have confidence that the movie will actually not be that simple in it’s story telling but I still feer that there are plenty of “kill’em all, let god sort them out” types that are ready to do see the movie to renew their hate or them A-Rabs.

    Finally, based on reading the intelligent back and forth above and on other threads on your site Micah. I’d like you to watch 2 movies for me. “Haiku Tunnel” and “Primer”
    The 1st will kill you. A great movie about a life long office temp worker. The 2nd I want you and the others to see because it is a time travel movie that will twist your mind into knots. Really well done. I watched it about three times in a row because I was so set in figuring it out.

  11. BIll Musto permalink
    May 1, 2006 1:59 pm

    Micah – I have three movie review requests:

    1) Shawshank Redemption
    2) Godfather, all 3 (critical to the movie canon)
    3) New Wave Hookers

  12. Brad Glaser permalink
    May 2, 2006 6:24 pm

    To be fair, it wasn’t until Part 3 that New Wave Hookers really hit its stride and found its unique voice.

  13. Ryan permalink
    May 3, 2006 10:43 pm

    Ahh New Wave Hookers… I’m instantly transported back to a day in Henle where all roommates were absent from the apartment for an entire glorious day. A wonderland if you will of midgets, dog costumes and strange seal noises.

  14. September 26, 2007 12:05 pm

    Hello All,

    I was reading around some of the posts here and I found interesting things that you guys talk about, I just made a blog about quitting smoking resources and ideas that you might want to check out.
    If someone is interested in this topic just go to; http://endthehabitnow.blogspot.com and let me know what you think.
    Thanks in advance.

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