Thank You For Smoking [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #37]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #37.  Spoilers ahead.  

Thank You For Smoking

Directed by David O. Russell

Release Date:  March 17, 2006
My age then:  35 years old

What it is about:  Noah Naylor is a lobbyist for the US tobacco industry, who works tirelessly to try to enhance the image of cigarettes, earning the ire of the American public–even to the degree of having his life threatened. At the same time, Noah tries to help his 12 year old son understand his work, and manage a new relationship with an ambitious and attractive journalist.

Starring Aaron Eckhart as Noah Naylor, Cameron Bright as Noah’s son Joey, Katie Holmes as Heather Holloway (the journalist), William H. Macy as an anti-smoking senator, J.K. Simmons as Noah’s boss, Robert Duvall as the founder of Noah’s organization, Rob Lowe as a high-powered Hollywood agent, and Kim Dickens as Noah’s ex-wife. Maria Bello and David Koechner play Noah’s friends, lobbyists for alcohol and gun rights. Sam Elliot appears as the original Marlboro Man, and now a victim of cancer. Melora Hardin has a small part as an interviewer, and Dennis Miller shows up briefly as himself.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about this movie before this. I even had the impression that the film was some sort of documentary, or mockumentary.

Reality: Thank You For Smoking is probably best described as a black comedy–a satirical little film which is here to get in some punches at big tobacco by showing the outrageous lengths that its defenders will go to control the public image of smoking. The problem with this is that the theme the movie is getting at is not particularly insightful. Basically, we’ve got “Smoking is bad for you, and the people who say otherwise probably have got another agenda.” Its not that I disagree with such sentiments–it’s just that the message is too obvious to be interesting.

There are some efforts made to make the movie about the whole process lobbying itself, including scenes with a somewhat inept anti-smoking senator played by William H. Macy. But they are pretty thin on the ground, and don’t offer anything more substantial than what we had before. The movie ends up being not so much an exploration of the topic than it is an extended rant about the point it wants to make.

However, it is an enjoyable rant to listen to. The dialogue is well written (written by director Jason Reitman) and the performances are sharp and lively. Aaron Eckhart is particularly is particularly compelling as the smarmy snake-oil salesman, who can charmingly convince the world around him about a cause he doesn’t personally care about. Eckhart is surrounded by a highly talented cast who are all doing their thing, including the likes of J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall, and Sam Elliot.

Structurally, most of the Thank You for Smoking is just Noah Naylor wandering through his work, interacting with a range of personalities over different issues related to cigarette sales. Occasionally, we think that the current conversation is going to elevate to being the “main plot” of the movie–like when he talks to a high-powered Hollywood agent played by Rob Lowe about raising smoking’s public image by getting movie stars to smoke. Or when he is actually kidnapped by radical anti-smoking activists. Or even when he finds himself having to explain to his son what he does and why.

But all of those things just end up as splashes of color in the film’s landscape, all held together by the most minimal of plots–Noah preparing to speak before the Senate, and dealing with the fallout of too much pillow-talk in his relationship with Katie Holmes’ Heather Holloway. Along with that is the barest bits of character growth, as Noah does indeed show some signs of considering the impact of his actions…but it is so scant that it barely registers. Is his life actually different at the end, or is it just ironically the same? The development is so lightly explained that it’s hard to tell, which makes the movie less satisfying than it could have been.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I enjoyed watching it, but it felt “empty”. I’ve never smoked, so I don’t know if watching the film is a similar sensation, but I’d say it was a bit like eating a small donut. Tasty, but afterwards you kind of wish you hadn’t bothered.

See here for the Master List.

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