Thank You for Smoking

dir: Jason Reitman
[img_assist|nid=881|title=And thank you for the cocaine|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=463]
Maybe it says more about me than the film, but it took me a while to realise this flick was meant to be a satirical comedy, and that it wasn’t a documentary.

Okay, so I’m bullshitting, but most of the material here is less of an outright parody than it is a fairly accurate (in spirit) depiction of the manner in which most of modern society is dependent upon people selling out at every level. Taken further, moral compromise and capitulation is a necessary part of getting by in the modern era.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a master of the dark arts of spin. He lives and breathes arguments and loves nothing more than verbally demolishing adversaries with his well-chosen words and rapid-fire delivery. He talks, talks and talks for most of the movie’s 92 minute running time.

And what does he say? He’s a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, the conglomeration of tobacco companies desperately trying to retain their place in a country where they’re under attack in the media, in the courts, and by the government, all for the sensitive, innocuous crime of selling a product which causes hundreds of thousands of deaths per year.

The thing is, Naylor doesn’t deny any of this. Being a spin doctor usually means dressing up indiscretions and outright fuck-ups in newspeak babble and outright lies. But Nick is so good at his job, so good at never being wrong, that he can still make the case in support of smoking whilst never technically lying.

He tells his son early on that the skill to doing what he does resides in the ability to argue correctly: “That's the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you're never wrong.” And he technically is never wrong.

But ethically, morally, he remains in possession of a flexibility that would make a Chinese child contortionist blanch. He knows how reasonable and morally bankrupt his world is, but his justification isn’t shallow. His message to his son, and to the world, after a visit to the dying Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot), is not that people will do anything for money, which we already know, but that most people will compromise their values in order to ensure that they can keep paying off their mortgages.

How banal, but no less resonant, all delivered within the confines of a smart, funny, fast-paced satire on modern America. In the broader context, it satirises (without bemoaning) the moral compromise that all of us are required to submit to through the course of our lives in a capitalist society.

It does so outside of simplistic notions of the right – left, progressive – conservative framework. This is not a film you can say pushes an agenda from any side of the false dichotomy divide. It does assert the rights of the individual in a way that you’re not going to hear from many other quarters. How many films can you think of tell you simultaneously that smoking does kill a shitload of people, but that in a free society, people should have the right to do so?

Nick regularly lunches with two other fellow comrades in the legal – yet – morally – questionable industries, and they call each other the Merchants of Death. The others, representing alcohol and firearms, do similar work in promoting their products and taking the heat from the media when something bad happens, like a study is released revealing the links between alcohol and foetal brain damage, or when some postal employee goes postal. They even argue about which of them, depending on how their industry is viewed by the public, is hated more, like it’s a badge of honour.

One of Nick’s early ideas is to encourage Hollywood producers to increase the amount of smoking in their movies. Though smoking does still crop up, as they correctly joke, most smokers on film are crims or psychopaths. They want the Brangelinas and the Catherine Zeta Johannsons of Tinseltown lighting up, not the extras and villains. Anything else doesn’t send the right message that smoking is still cool.

The film takes its digs at Hollywood in the form of a strange agent (Rob Lowe) who sometimes parades around in a kimono, whose job it is to merge investors in the form of product placement and film producers in order to get synergies. Synergy, for those of you unfamiliar with the word, is where you put two ideas together and come up with something exponentially worse than the some of its parts.

Journalists, the ravenous media, do-gooder government officials and Senators are also given a serve, but the flick avoids the heavy-handed approach by ensuring that nothing gets too serious, and that it doesn’t end up going down the path of most treacleness by film’s end.

You could say that there is something dissatisfying in the lack of character arc in the main characters, but some hackneyed comeuppance followed by happy resolution would have undercut both the believability of Nick and the flick’s funny but somewhat depressing message. He is a believable character, and he does retain his humanity whilst going through all the peregrinations that the slender plot requires. Conversations with his son Joey (Cameron Bright) are some of the highlights of the film, because they show Nick to be, for all his failings, definitely not a hypocrite.

And thus, he’s a character I can respect.

Jason Reitman does a relatively competent job as a first-time director, though it’s the script and the performances that really make it work, since it’s not particularly visually flashy. Even though few (if any) of the characters are fleshed out, they nonetheless do what is required of them well. Except for the young journalist character played by Katie Holmes, who could have just as easily been played as well by any female with breasts.

For all the ground it breathlessly covers, the flick is still a fairly light caper, when it comes down to it. This doesn’t lacerate with its satire so much as it leaves the audience with the mildest of abrasions. I wouldn’t have wanted it to try any harder than it does, but it does leave you feeling a bit like it wasn’t that substantive, in the end.

But no matter, I still recommend it to anyone who likes American satires that pretend to bite the hand that feeds, a la Wag the Dog, but that never really indict the system that creates them and that they are dependent upon for their financial success.

7 times I was wondering how a flick about smoking could get away with not having a single smoking scene in it out of 10

“We don't sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they're cool, available, and *addictive*. The job is almost done for us.” – Thank You for Smoking.