The inherent problem with reviewing films early in the calendar year is that there’s no way to tell how they will compare to the myriad of prestige projects slated for the fall. There’s always the temptation to proclaim something as “The Best Film of the Year”, even though the competition so far is pretty slim. Of course, such statements have little to no actual meaning, other than sounding important and looking good on a poster or DVD case, and often look foolish in retrospect. So why is it that film critics continue to use such grand statements? My guess is that it’s just an easy way to get the point across.
So you’ll have to forgive me, dear reader, if I fail to proclaim Thank You for Smoking as the year’s best or an early Oscar front-runner or any other hyperbolic claim, even if they’re probably all true. I shall save such sentiments for early January, where they belong.
That being said, the fact remains that Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking is a wicked satire, a glorious skewering of a culture where lobbyists are treated like rock stars, multi-national corporations are portrayed as victims, and nothing is unethical, just poorly argued. Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, the chief lobbyist for the tobacco industry. We meet Nick as much of America meets Nick, on a panel for Joan Lunden’s talk show. The panel is heavily slanted, as most day-time talk show panels are, but Nick, using nothing more than charisma and simple logic, rules the day, winning over the audience and making Ron Goode (Todd Louiso), aide to Sen. Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy), look like a damned fool.[ADBLOCKHERE]And so we have our hero: a man who tells a little girl her mother isn’t a credible expert, a man described as a profiteer, a pimp, and a “yuppie Mephistopheles”. All those nasty words you can’t say in public – that’s him. It’s a curious choice for a protagonist, to be sure, but when you think of Nick as the heir apparent to some of Cary Grant’s more memorably sleazy characters, he doesn’t seem quite so loathsome. Such a role requires a special breed of actor, one who is tall and handsome, a prototypical alpha male so self-assured and confident that every word out of his mouth carries enough conviction to make you at least consider it, no matter how absurd. There are a slew of legendary actors who couldn’t play this sort of role, and then there is Eckhart, who was born to play it. Eckhart, with his blue eyes and cleft chin, is the kind of guy who was likely quarterback of the football team, prom king, and universally popular his entire life. He’s the type of person who could lead a willing battalion on a suicide mission. If they ever re-make The Dirty Dozen (1967), he’s the first person they should cast. So it’s no surprise he makes Nick the most likable character in the film, throwing himself fully into a bravado performance that’s sure to significantly increase his asking price. I expect we’ll see him in mostly leading roles for a while after this. What is surprising is how much energy the film expends in making Nick likable, despite his obvious flaws.
It would have been easy for first-time director Jason Reitman to establish Nick as a dubious hero, only to teach him a profound lesson on the error of his ways, thereby reforming him to a more comfortable level of morality and acknowledging to the audience that, yes, this is a bad guy. This would have led to a review where I chastise Reitman for not having the guts to follow the story’s logical progression wherein people don’t change, they don’t learn grand life lessons, they don’t reform. These things just don’t happen in real life, I’d say, as I bemoan the state of filmmaking today. And I was ready to write that because, let’s face it, precious few films stray from that formula and it makes for an easier review. If the director’s going to be lazy, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be afforded the same luxury.
But I am happy to report that Reitman is a kindred soul who values such things as not betraying your characters and avoiding the temptation to preach and moralize and otherwise vary from the film’s ultimate end: to be both entertaining and artistic. Because if Thank You for Smoking is any indication, Reitman is an immensely talented individual who, more than the vast majority of filmmakers, gets it. He is an artist who understands his medium down to its core, who isn’t afraid to take chances, who knows his film history. Yet, he doesn’t feel the need to tell us that by throwing in an obvious homage or a clip from a film with similar themes. Rather, he simply goes about telling his story in the best way he knows how, using his accumulated knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that’s a wickedly funny and fearless gem. My only fear is that Reitman won’t be able to duplicate it. The main character often says that if you argue correctly, you can never be wrong.
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Cameron Bright, and William H. Macy
Written by: Jason Reitman, from the novel by Christopher Buckley
Directed by: Jason Reitman
R, 92 min, 2006, USA