16 December 2006

Thank You For Smoking

I really expected to like this movie. It was billed as this wildly clever satire, ultimately centering on a man who job it is to utilize the persuasive powers of language to their full potential - a bullshit artist, if you will. That it explored this topic through the tobacco industry made it double plus good. But ultimately, I had the same problem with this movie as I did with Quills, that movie about Marquis de Sade - both are films that stick their toes into risky waters, and refuse to take the plunge. Ultimately, Thank You For Smoking ends up unable to resist its own moralizing impulse, and becomes a bland touchy feely lecture on being a good parent.

First though, the plot? Ridiculous. It's so disastrously bad, it's apalling. The movie is supposed to be about talking, but obviously seems anxious that viewers will get bored, so it attempts to make up for this by having these conversations occur in wildly disparate settings, so the main character is always going somewhere, which makes the movie feel really frenetic and rushed. You feel like you only catch glimpses of him in action, and brief snatches of reflection, short bursts where you actually feel like the movie is focusing on its own topic. And when it does so, it manages to be quite interesting, but then, suddenly, the main character is kidnapped and hospitalized, none of which is all that thrilling, or relevant, but is rather distracting and annoying.

The best segment is probably when he goes to the home of the former Marlboro Man with a briefcase full of money. His job is to give the man the money as a bribe to keep quiet about his cancer. It's the moment where the main character's abilities to manipulate people are truly at their peak. But it's weakened by the completely unnecessary presence of his son in the other room, who serves as the nagging thorn of morality in the movie's side. This is truly its achilles heel - the unfortunate choice to introduce the question of morality by examining the kind of role model the main character is for his son (played by the preposterously solemn, doe-eyed Cameron Bright). I hate it when the naivete of children is used to show how corrupt the adult world is. It just gets on my damn nerves. Because of the father-son dynamic, the film is always teetering on the brink of cheap sentiment. Rather than relishing the sleaziness of the main character, you're at every minute anticipating the moment of conversion - which ultimately is exactly what happens, albeit not in the sickly sweet way one dreads.

The real problem with the movie, I think, is that it tries to be both a satire and an psychological investigation of its main character. So on the one hand, you have a cast of totally flat, intrumental characters - the sleazy senator, the sleazy reporter, the sleazy firearm and alcohol reps (most everyone is sleazy in this movie), the gruff boss, the big boss tobacco captain, the concerned mother, etc - and then you have the main character, who is supposed to have some kind of depth. Aaron Eckhart is a great actor, but here he only seems to have two modes of being; the Cheshire Cat smiles and smooth talking, or the contemplative sighs, staring off into space or at his son. You're probably supposed to wonder whether or not he actually believes his own bullshit, but the movie is so busy trying to manufacture some antic-filled plot that it doesn't manage to actually examine this question.

Finally, I couldn't help but be disappointed with the film's prudishness about its centerpiece - cigarettes. I don't know how anyone could see it as a pro-smoking film - to me, it obviously sent a strong anti-smoking message. It emphasizes that consumers should be informed and free to make their own decisions (and curiously, doesn't really explore the manipulative power of advertising, which is supposed to be the point of the movie?), but it makes it crystal clear that cigarettes are not the right choice. It makes a few not-so-subtle comments about the dangers of smoking and refuses to show even a single scene with a character smoking a cigarette. I respect that the filmmakers didn't want to make a movie promoting cigarettes in any way, but if that was the case, maybe they shouldn't have a movie about a tobacco lobbyist?

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