Monday, October 15, 2012

Cinema 2005: Cancer shtick

“Thank You For Smoking” from 2005 lampoons sundry corners of contemporary America. It’s a funny film but it lets its targets off the hook. The satire here is strictly catch and release.

The opening credit sequence sets the tone with that finger-snapping oldie “Smoke That Cigarette,” as performed by Tex Williams and the Western Caravan. The story starts off strong, mocking the IQ of daytime TV audiences. But tobacco’s super lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is never called upon in this film to square off against an A-list opponent.

Naylor’s precocious son (Cameron Bright) attends Catholic school, which serves as the facile butt of one of the movie’s many gags. But the comedy fails to mount a coherent critique of the state of education in the U.S., arguably a major reason why the sloppy logic of silver-tongued lobbyists and TV blowhards sways the public in the first place. Young Naylor eventually wins a school debate contest, but we can safely assume it is not of the Lincoln-Douglas variety. There are no real debates in this film. All arguments are sleight of mouth. The glib conquer with sexy sound bytes, while the well-meaning fumble, forever flummoxed.

Despite Naylor’s tender parenting scenes, he teaches his son, “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Perhaps this reflects a national philosophy in a land of litigators. And maybe it is more practical than Buddhism’s “Nothing is more useless than clever words.” But where does it leave the moral compass?

Naylor also teaches his kid the value of money, namely, you’re crazy not to grab it, even if it means selling your dignity. Naylor boils it all down to “paying the mortgage,” and any means is justified. Despite it all, we actually feel sorry for Naylor when the charming cad is down and out. But as he rebounds, we are reminded that this lobbyist is a shyster and his job is to “keep secrets and spin the truth.”

But nowhere does the film truly poke a righteous finger in the eye of Big Tobacco. Instead it sends up “the Captain” (Robert Duvall), a Carolina tobacco tycoon who reminds us more of a Kentucky Colonel than a robber baron of the broadleaf. Duvall, of course, is his consummate self, waxing wistful over war stories. Similarly, when Hollywood is derided, it is in the person of an eccentric egomaniac, played with snubbing poise by Rob Lowe. Never are we shown anything realistic, like vice presidents in suits on dozens of executive boards unscrupulously strategizing ways to earn money for shareholders, regardless of collateral cultural damage, in the case of Hollywood, or real human costs in the case of cigarettes.

The movie does give us a glimpse of how agenda-driven demagogues can skew a debate, if they are “moderating” it on their own TV show. A self-contented Dennis Miller plays himself in one such scene, apparently unaware of the inherent irony of this bit of casting by director Jason Reitman.

“Thank You” eventually grows muddled when it cannot find its way out of its own jokes. Along the way, Sam Elliot, as the original “Marlboro Man,” disintegrates before our very eyes as he goes from the defiant one to a disarmed and dying dude, done in as much by a briefcase of C-notes as a lifetime of smoking. It is a small role but performed to perfection. On the other hand, William H. Macy is never believable as the crusading U.S. Senator, even if he is only supposed to represent maple syrup maniacs and cheddar cheese-heads.

“Thank You For Smoking” amuses, but its nonchalant deprecation does a disservice. Despite the grim statistics cited by Naylor in a bout of one-upmanship with lobbyists for booze and firearms, the movie’s silly mood downplays one of the brutal legacies in the annals of big business, still impacting Americans and millions more people all over the world.

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