Thursday, March 30, 2006
Jason Reitman was introduced to the world of film at a tender age. At a mere eleven days old, his dad Ivan brought him to the set of the film'Animal House
'that he was producing. Jason got to watch his father work quite often racking up cameos in a handful of his films, and by thirteen, even having a job as a production assistant on his dad'sKindergarten Cop
. This notion of wanting to see what your father does for a living and being proud of what he does is important to a child, and Jason works that into his adaptation of Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel,Thank You For Smoking
. (And while we're talking fathers and sons, Christopher Buckley is the son of William F.)
Reitman, who makes his feature film writing and directing debut with Thank You For Smoking , fell in love with Buckley's book after reading the first sentence: 'Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.' Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) makes a living by defending Big Tobacco and smokers' rights. Naylor is a slick master of spin. Blonde, with all-American good looks and a Superman square chin, Naylor never shrinks from a battle and is undaunted by anything as mundane as facts. Because he works for cigarette makers, he's always on the offensive, and always quick to assault any opponent who dares malign smoking.
At the moment we meet Naylor, he's dealing with the usual damning health reports as well as with a new enemy, Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy). The Senator would like to put nasty looking poison labels on every pack of cigarettes to discourage people from picking up a pack. This sends Naylor on an all-out PR offensive extolling the benefits of tobacco (think about all those poor farmers who depend on tobacco to survive), and spinning away the dangers (cheese from Senator Finistirre's home state of Minnesota presents far more of a risk with all its fat). To put it simply, Naylor is in his element and seems energized by battle.
Naylor's pro-smoking campaign takes him to Hollywood where a super-agent (Rob Lowe) agrees to help promote smoking in movies, making it sexy just like in the old days of Bogie and Bacall. Naylor also gains the attention of an attractive Washington, D.C. reporter (Katie Holmes) who wants to do a feature on him for an influential daily paper in the nation's capitol. When she asks why he does what he does, Naylor replies that he's just trying to pay the mortgage. But when his son Joey (Cameron Bright) takes an increased interest in dad's work, Naylor begins to re-evaluate some of his career choices.
Reitman decided to expand on the relationship between Naylor and his son for the movie, feeling that if Joey could love his father, than so too could the audience. This father-son relationship gives the film an unexpected emotional core but it also softens the edge of this satire. After all if you want the main character'a man of questionable morals'to be likable, then you can't really be nasty in your satiric assault. And in the end, Thank You For Smoking is something of a warm and fuzzy, feel-good satire. Even Naylor's enemies'from the Howdy Doody do gooding senator to crusading talk show hosts'have a soft edge and are made silly caricatures rather than serious satiric targets. In the end, the film assures us that everything's okay and 'our hero' will live happily ever after. This gentle edge is really the only complaint I have about what is a consistently hilarious film chock full of pitch-perfect performances.
At the center is Aaron Eckhart's Naylor. Eckhart gave us the ultimate corporate bastard in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men , and in Thank You For Smoking he tones down the nastiness but maintains that ultra-slick, supremely confident, unflappable demeanor. He makes a virtue out of Naylor's ability to turn the truth into something inconsequential. What makes Naylor ultimately likable is that he takes such pleasure and passion in being able to spin. Eckhart makes Naylor like a finely tuned athlete who wants to be tested and challenged. He wants to be the guy who makes the Hail Mary pass or who displays his prowess by making the game winning slam-dunk. Spinning to Naylor, is like an Olympic event or at the very least a god-given right. When Naylor discusses his job with his son, he endows what he does with the kind of bright-eyed idealism of a Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . In the end you feel like Naylor could convince anyone of anything. Yet Eckhart also gives Naylor a core humanity that allows him to also be endearing in an odd way.
A talented supporting cast surrounds Eckhart. Bright, the young boy from Birth , once again displays an amazing maturity as Naylor's son Joey. There's something mesmerizing in the stillness and calm of Bright's performance, and something unnerving in his penetrating stare. If Eckhart's Naylor is all about lies spun as truth, Bright's Joey displays a piercing sense of truth and honesty. As the Marlboro Man who ends up with lung cancer, Sam Elliott is sheer perfection. He's the only actor who can so easily embody the modern cowboy. As Naylor's friends, Mario Bello and David Koechner are a riot. Bello plays Polly Bailey, the liquor industry's spokesperson, and Koechner is Bobby Jay Bliss, the spokesman for the gun industry. Together with Naylor they are the M.O.D. Squad'Merchants of Death. Their backroom lunch meetings provide the film with some of its best material as they argue about which of their industries is responsible for the greatest number of deaths.
Reitman directs with confidence and endows the film with a fittingly brisk pace that sweeps us up in the world of spin. Again, the only complaint I can levy against both the film and Reitman, is that neither is quite as nasty and mean-spirited as I would have liked in a satire on tobacco, excessive political correctness, and the dizzying spin culture that treats truth as something dispensable and even irrelevant. Reitman just seems too nice a guy to give his comedy the vicious edge of say Alexander Payne's Election or anything written by Neil LaBute. But Reitman, within the realm of this less toxic brand of satire, excels and sustains a high level of humor throughout.
Thank You For Smoking (rated R for language and some sexual content) is a crisply executed comic portrait of a man who simply loves to spin. And by the end of the film, Eckhart's Naylor almost has you convinced that spinning is a noble profession.
Companion viewing: Cold Turkey, The Insider, In the Company of Men -----