Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

For all the bad-mouthing I give the standard output of Hollywood, occasionally you've got to acknowledge Tinseltown's ability to really hit the mark with a piece of cinema. Amid the raft of dreck that gets relentlessly pumped onto the googolplex screens across the globe, there occasionally emerges a piece of work that is genuinely worth two hours of your time and ten euros of your money. The relationship between quality and quantity isn't something Hollywood often understands though, as the existence of a third 'Fast and Furious' movie should underline. However, amid the sequels, prequels and remakes, there are occasional little gems that Hollywood sneaks onto the silver screen. The unfortunate paradox is that these slow-burning labours of love often tiptoe under the general public's collective radar without so much as a squeak of publicity.

'Thank You for Smoking' is very much in this category. A morality play isn't easy to get into one of those jaw-dropping trailers, where a gravel-throated voice-over tells us in no uncertain terms that to miss this movie means we are effectively dead. No, a morality play ends up on something called 'limited release', which in Dublin means that it may show in three cinemas, and for not very long. For the limited release movie to succeed, therefore, Dvd sales must be kind. In the case of 'Thank You for Smoking', I can only hope this is the case.

Based on the book written by Christopher Buckley, the movie tells the story of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist representing the interests of Big Tobacco, one of the big seven American tobacco companies. We learn very early on that Naylor is a master of argument, and his speeches in the movie are carefully crafted and loaded with wit. In effect he is a spin-doctor, and when he is asked, as he is repeatedly throughout the movie, whether he likes his job, despite the obvious dangers of promoting something as lethal as cigarettes, his responses are logical and intelligent justifications for his role.

What's in a job anyway? Can't someone representing the interests of tobacco companies be a nice guy? It seems difficult for this to be the case, as is evident from Naylor's day-time talk show appearance early in the movie, when middle-class housewives boo and spit on him from the audience. This seems to be the core question in the movie, and we are challenged to dislike Nick Naylor, who is played with disarming charm by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart is a square-jawed, sharp-suited all-american good guy, and in any other job he would certainly not be vilified in the same manner. We are left to wonder why he puts himself in a position where he is open to such bile and hatred, and this question is also explored in the movie.

In effect, Eckhart's character enjoys winning arguments.. actually, to refine that slightly, he enjoys showing up the other guy as being the loser of the argument! These arguments make the comedy in Thank You for Smoking. Some of Eckhart's exchanges with William H. Macy, playing an anti-tobacco Vermont senator, are genuinely funny, and incredibly challenging for the senator who may have previously thought it would be impossible to lose a debate on the dangers of tobacco.

Eckhart's relationship with his son is the most interesting in the movie. His influence on the Naylor junior is unquestionable, but the virtue of his influence is certainly doubtful. He teaches the boy how to argue, and the effects of these lessons are startling. He takes the boy on business trips - a product of necessity since his job leaves him with little free time - and the kid learns what kind of man his father is by watching him at work. As Naylor seems to find himself repeatedly engaging in morally questionable activities on behalf of 'big tobacco', we are left a little uncomfortable in our seats as junior sponges up his father's influence.

The supporting cast of Thank You for Smoking is as strong as you will see. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as the tobacco chief, otherwise known as 'the Captain'. Katie Holmes does a half-decent job as the reporter looking to tell Naylor's story, but Maria Bello - who you may remember from 'A History of Violence' - does a great job as one of Naylor's two only friends. She plays an alcohol lobbyist, and David Koechner - the hillbilly from Anchorman - plays the other link in the trio and Naylor's other friend, a firearm lobbyist. The three affectionately refer to themselves as the 'Merchants of Death' and their luncthtime conversations are darkly hilarious. Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott and William H. Macy round out the principals, and this support is genuinely good. Each supporting character aids the telling of the story, and their influence is important outside of their scenes. In the third act of the movie, when we see the cumulative effect of each of Naylor's morally questionable acts slowly beginning to impact on his life, it is easy to recollect each of the characters he has met or had an impact upon.

The production, too, is expertly rendered. This movie looks and sounds great, and the action flows at a jaunty, comfortable pace. However, the script really stands up. Eckhart's dialogue sparkles with intelligence, and while his deivery is to be commended, for his really is an excellent performance, the dialogue is sharp, smart and layered, to the point where you are almost tempted to get your hands on a copy of the book.

Now, I have a fear that 'Thank You for Smoking' will pass most people by, but this is a crying shame. It isn't 'Casino Royale' or 'Crank' by any means, but it is the ideal Dvd for home watching (him/herself may also like it, you never know!). The appeal of the subject matter is broad enough to appeal to most, and while the talent on display may not appeal to fans of 'Torque' or the 'Fast and Furious' franchise, most people should be surprised by how engaging and warm this funny, thought-provoking and entertaining movie really is.

The Verdict: A hidden gem, warm, funny, and thoughtful.
Rating: 8/10

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