Monday, November 06, 2006

Thank you for watching...that will be all

So what is so special about Thank you for smoking, Jason Reitman's comedy about a tobacco lobbyist exerting spin control in an increasingly losing cause? Reviews for Reitman's efforts (he also wrote the screenplay - a clever effort that knowingly gets a little too cute) were mixed when it was released last year, but generally populist critics seemed to give it a thumbs up.

Loosely the story is this: Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a fast thinking lobbyist who works for a cigarette manufacturer (his boss is J.K.Simmons, doing a variation of his role as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-man) and takes orders directly from Robert Duvall, doing a deft turn as a big tobacco legend called The Captain. Eckhart specializes in dodging direct questions about the effects of tobacco on health by counter-reasoning, counter-attacks and more often than not playing the freedom of choice card.
Eckhart, who is divorced and shares a tenous relationship with his ex-wife, but dotes on his only son, has exactly two friends - an alchohol lobbyist played whip smart and without scruples by Maria Bello (A History of Violence) and a spokesperson for the NRA played with subdued goofiness by David Koechner (Anchorman). Together they meet for dinners and deconstruct their work. Bello, Koechner and Eckhart's scenes together are staged with a doomsday kind of energy: all three of them (they call themselves the Merchants of Death or the MOD Squad) can talk each other under the table, but they fully understand they are fighting a losing battle.

Eckhart's inherent sweetness, exploited for good measure by Steven Soderbergh in Erin Brockovich, is on display here as well. It's key in helping his morally ambigous character connect with the audience. In a stereotypical but successful screenplay device, he is also asked plenty of questions about his job by his son, which allows us to empathically get into his head via his explanations for why he does what he does.

At some point early in the movie, Eckhart is dispatched to work on his idea of making cigarettes sexy again by strategically placing them in movies. Rob Lowe, performing a Hollywood uber agent, saves this minor script departure into what could have fertile satire territory. Enter Katie Holmes, a buttery journalist with tight chignons and morals possibly as ambigous as Eckhart's very own. Telling you more would ruin the movie for you.

Somewhere in all of this, William H. Macy does a hilarious turn as an anti-tobacco senator who can't quite get the better of Eckhart. When it comes to playing hand-wringing worry warts who are bested by circumstances despite their finest efforts, Macy has no equal. Here again, he plays a part in some of the movies sharpest humor.

While "Thank you..." is not laugh out loud most of the times, it definitely keeps you chuckling and in good humor. It's got no booger or fart jokes (not a movie for Adam Sandler fans). The poignant scenes are not too treackly, but the cuteness is deliberate and sprinkled through the movie. The issues are played for satire and humor, but both are somewhat trite and skin-deep. We get good insight on a few, but not all, issues at play. We get a paper thin explanation of what the stakes are for multiple people. There is the recurring sentiment along the lines of people doing things because they have a mortgage to pay.

All of this makes "Thank you..." a lot of fun but not very insightful or memorable.

No comments: