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Lost causes 

Two satires tackle smoking, slavery and the South

click to enlarge Tobacco is better than you think: Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking - PHOTO COURTESY OF DALE ROBINETTE/ FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Photo courtesy of Dale Robinette/ Fox Searchlight
  • Tobacco is better than you think: Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking
Satire is one of the trickiest, most difficult movies genres, given that it involves a delicate balance between genuine written and cinematic wit on one hand and a ripe, topical target on the other. Perhaps that's why truly great satires like Robert Altman's The Player and Gus Van Sant's To Die For come along only once in a blue moon.

Lately it's been tempting to speculate that satire has taken a hit from the fact that reality is getting too weird and unfunny to satirize. Yet two new satires--one terrific, one terrible--prove that filmmakers haven't given up on the form, which may well mean that they haven't given up on reality: a bit of good news in itself. Both movies, incidentally, are of particular interest to Southerners.

Though it now has my vote as the best American film of 2006 so far, I'll admit I went into Jason Reitman's THANK YOU FOR SMOKING with more skepticism than anticipation. Part of that has to do with the fact that I'm not much of a fan of Christopher Buckley's satirical essays, which usually strike me as more pleased with their assumed cleverness than actually clever. And while I haven't read the early-'90s Buckley novel from which Reitman's screenplay derives, its satiric subject--tobacco lobbyists--sounded at once too last-decade and too prone to p.c. right-think to be very promising.

As it turns out, the film's first virtue is the most important: It is genuinely, consistently, ingeniously funny from first till last. That it's also drolly amusing, stylistically adroit and incisively insightful is gravy; the meat is a laughter quotient that would do any flat-out comedy proud.

As for that concern over political correctness, I needn't have worried. Gleefully un-p.c. to a fault, the film skewers the excesses of anti-smoking zealots in the Birkenstock-wearing figure of Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (the wonderful William H. Macy), who wants to erase the images of old movie stars smoking by ordering that cigarettes between the fingers of Marlene Dietrich and Humphrey Bogart, say, be replaced with candy canes, flowers and other innocuous items.

Doing battle against such arrant nonsense--in other words, our hero--is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), intrepid lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies (a send-up of the Tobacco Institute). A blond, grinning workaholic, Naylor loves his job, which essentially consists of burnishing the image of tobacco products and tossing rhetorical sand in the eyes of anyone who opposes them. Against Sen. Finistirre, for example, he avers that the cholesterol in Vermont's cheese is a greater health threat to Americans than tobacco.

So yes, Nick himself is a purveyor of another brand of nonsense, one that's deeply out of fashion at the moment. That, of course, gives him the appeal of any battling-the-odds underdog; compared to the pinch-lipped puritanical self-righteousness of the anti-tobacco hardcore, his exuberant professional mischievousness can't help but exude a contrarian's catalytic charm. Nevertheless, this being Washington, D.C., it leaves him with few friends. Two, in fact. Nick spends his off hours commiserating with a lobbyist from the alcohol industry (Maria Bello) and one representing firearms manufacturers (David Koechner). They call themselves The MOD Squad--as in Merchants of Death.

Why would anyone make a career of defending the indefensible? Nick gives two reasons. One: "I'm good at it," a simple fact that nobody watching him can deny. Two: "Paying the mortgage," an obligation as inescapable as death and taxes. He doesn't give alimony as a third reason, but we can't help noticing that the disarray of his personal life includes a caustic ex-wife and a young son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who's struggling to get a view of his dad beyond his mom's lingering bitterness.

You get the sense that Nick's chosen career is increasingly coming to resemble an elephant's graveyard when he jets down to Winston-Salem to see the tobacco industry's patriarch (a beyond-wonderful Robert Duvall), who may be on his last legs but is nonetheless eager to pursue any scheme that will boost tobacco's lot. The first of those involves soliciting Hollywood's powers-that-be to show movie stars like Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones puffing away like smokestacks in romantic scenes. With that mission, and with Joey in tow for father-son bonding purposes, Nick hops out to L.A. and encounters the entertainment biz in the unforgettable personages of Rob Lowe as a slickly accommodating agency head and Adam Brody as his obsequious assistant--a five-minute scene that may be the sharpest satire of Hollywood since The Player.

Thank You for Smoking's satiric sense is indeed razor-sharp throughout, yet given the description above, you might wonder what its exact target is--the tobacco industry, anti-tobacco crusaders, the strange culture of lobbyists and "spin," the increasing merger of corporate and Hollywood ideologies, or other candidates? In fact, the film escapes one pitfall that ensnares some satires--focusing too narrowly on one or two issues--by casting its net wide enough to catch a variety of topical fish.

There's certainly a logic and a coherence to this approach, given how interconnected the various facets of American life mentioned above, and others, are. In essence, government, lobbyists, corporations and Madison Avenue/Hollywood belong to the same culture of exploitation and hypocrisy; they only draw our attention when the rampant absurdities surrounding an issue like tobacco become too blatant and threaten to blow the whole game. Yet putting it like that also can make the problem sound too abstract and institutional. Ultimately the whole system continues operating thanks to countless individuals who are good at what they do--a prime American virtue--and need to pay the mortgage.

That fact would lead some satires to sneer at and look down upon low-level corporate tools like Nick Naylor, and this is the main mistake Thank You for Smoking deftly and happily avoids. Not only does Nick come across as a genuinely likable guy despite--and to an extent, because of--the ethical compromises and screw-ups that comprise his professional lives, but the film ultimately grounds his actions in real emotional dilemmas. Nick's interactions with his son, where he tries to defend his ways while also providing real moral guidance, give the movie a human complexity that many satires miss.

Credit for that must be shared by Aaron Eckhart, who previously has found roles matched to his considerable gifts only in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men and Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. Eckhart's impressive efforts are well-framed by Reitman, who has an evident knack for comic timing and the fine points of film craft. The 20-something son of Ghostbusters auteur Ivan Reitman, this writer-director has given us a satire that's not only thoroughly smart and engaging, but isn't a minute longer than it need be--a rare virtue among contemporary comedies.

 

Kevin Willmott's misguided satire C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA opens with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that says, "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they'll kill you." It's hard to say whether that epigraph is more pretentious or more presumptuous, since it promises you nothing less than the truth--no mere entertainment here!--even while guaranteeing that it knows a direct route to your funny bone.

In any case, the film fails utterly on both counts. As for funny, I saw it in a fairly full screening room and couldn't help but notice the utter lack of mirth and yuks around me. And no wonder. Mounted as a fake BBC documentary detailing the history of America since the Confederate victory in 1865, C.S.A. is interspersed with fake, race-themed TV commercials so clunky and unamusing that you could practically hear people groan every time another commercial break began.

As for truth, Willmott, a professor at the University of Kansas, wants us to understand that the United States today is just as racist as it would have been if the Confederacy had proved victorious in 1865. Or something like that. It is, of course, the kind of thing that a certain type of unfunny but self-serious college professor would want to tell you. And it entirely misses the first truth following from the question "What if the South had won the Civil War?"

As most people who don't teach at the University of Kansas know, the South wasn't fighting to conquer the North, but to establish itself--much as the American colonies had done in besting the British--as an independent country. What would have been the result if it had succeeded, especially considering that slavery was on the way out everywhere in the civilized world (it ended in the western hemisphere in the 1880s)? Would the South have found a way to transition from slave to free labor on its own, or would it have been torn by an internal civil war?

These fascinating questions are wasted by Willmott, who wants us to ponder the results of the South conquering the North, a historical impossibility that makes his effort to get at "the truth" a rhetorical absurdity. Still, though the film is a complete dud as satire, comedy, parody and historical speculation, it does leave the door open for some more astute filmmaker to approach the untouched question.

  • Thank You for Smoking; The Confederate States of America

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