March 17, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

I've wrote often about my adverse reaction to dark comedies in general. So imagine my surprise at just how enjoyable Thank You for Smoking truly was. A delight that my fellow audience members were equally vocal about on their way out the door.
The film follows Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a P.R. flack for Big Tobacco. He's good at spin. Really good. So good that when he goes on an Oprah-esque talk show about the dire consequences of smoking, he leaves shaking Cancer Boy's hand. The performance attracts the admiration of his higher-ups in the Tobacco industry (including a gruff J.K. Simmons and an utterly tweaked Robert Duvall) and the ire of the ultra-liberal Senator Finistirre from Vermont (cut-throat for William H. Macy).
His travels bring him in contact with horny reporters, flaked out Hollywood deal brokers, and a cancer-riddled Marlboro Man. Tagging for most of the journey is Naylor's young son, who admires everything about him ¡ even the less than admirable parts.
A big part of what makes this film stand out is its cheerful nonchalance about matters of utter moral depravity. It would have been easy to make a movie about a guilt-riddled Naylor or a Naylor that's a true and utter prick. Besides defending an industry that (as he proudly declares at one point) kills many multiples more than alcohol abuse and fire arms combined, Naylor's a pretty likable guy. He's a little too good looking, a little too slick to be taken seriously. But it's undeniable that he's good at what he does.
The movie doesn't hold back much in its scathing sarcasm of the tobacco industry, but it doesn't give the militant anti-smoking lobby a free pass either. The way Naylor outmanoeuvres his opponents (who on a personal level are far less likable than he is) is sometimes a marvel to behold. The screenplay by Jason Reitman mines the hypocrisy of both extremes for every ounce of humour. The diverse cast — of which I have only sampled — is uniformly effective, offering new surprises at every turn.
Unlike The Weather Man, Thank You for Smoking doesn't keep the audience at arm's length. The humour is crisp and inviting. The characters might not be nice, but they're at the very least not exasperating. And when Naylor finally turns a corner at the end, it's not the result of some broad transformation in political ideals. He simply examines his options and makes the right decision for him. I wish more satires could have this film's spark and desire to please. ()


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