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Home > Media

TFT Film: 'Thank You For Smoking'

24 June 2006

It's a bit of a gift for a filmmaker to find a story, in a rather loose sense, about the semiotics of bullshit. Christopher Buckley's now 12-year-old book 'Thank You For Smoking' is one of those enduring tales of spin, counter-spin and unabashed moral slime that will probably always be relevant, and director Jason Reitman evidently took great and snarky pleasure in making it his first film. While it's certainly snarky, it's not really great - ultimately, for a film about such incendiary ideas as freedom of thought and the fluidity of truth, it's soft and cuddly where it could so easily have been bitey and chompy.

'Thank You For Smoking' follows charming besuited twat Nick Naylor as he finagles his way through life as a tobacco lobbyist and 'yuppie Mephistopheles'. Naylor (played with a seductive ease by supporting-role guy Aaron Eckhart) describes himself thus: 'You know that guy who always gets the girl? I'm him, on crack.' He sporadically narrates the film, which also has the odd colourful skittery outburst of subtitles (the grizzled tobacco boss says 'environmentalist', the subtitles suddenly shout 'PUSSY') and on-screen graphics. The narration is just enough for us to get on the side of this smiling bastard who cleverly equivocates and tergiversates until he defeats all comers, explaining that no one has yet proven cigarettes actually kill you, while all about him are spluttering with right-thinking inarticulacy. William H. Macy is the best of these hapless foils, as deliciously-named Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre. It's a naughty, transgressive riot, as you'd expect. The tobacco lobbyist, speaking on behalf of a cause that's being squeezed out like the last rancid squit of toothpaste from society's tube, is an ad-man squared. He has to go beyond even the most devious, keyhole-surgical means of manipulation to ensure a tiny shred of reasonable doubt remains in people's minds for another day. This sort of seat-of-pants existence requires an insouciant, calm-as-cheese character to display it, and Nick Naylor is almost too good.

There's a lot of wit to gloat over, and lots of nifty explanation of how to negotiate an intellectual win, taught by Naylor to his son and thereby to us. All you have to do, apparently, is prove that you're right by setting up a giant easy target that you can't fail to hit with a big soft ball of irrefutable argument ('not negotiation'). Then, by default, your opponent slumps into the wrong. Naylor demonstrates this by way of a discussion about chocolate versus vanilla ice cream (he claims to require chocolate *and* vanilla, and wins that way... yeah, it needs watching twice if you're going to use it yourself). These scenes, with Naylor revealing secrets to his boy like a magician showing what's up his sleeve, are too gosh-darn cute to be chilling. That goes for the rest of the film, which is superficially cutting and hints at very dark things but is pervasively, joyfully breezy. Reitman just isn't aiming to do a lot with the material - the meaty subject matter is the director's jumping-off point for suave jokes, whereas truly *satirey* satire uses the funnies as delicate instruments to deliver something a bit heavier.

The message of the film, if it wasn't so preoccupied with diplomatic side-swiping, would be - think for yourself, idiot. It demonstrates what a massive responsibility it is to elbow aside outside forces to make up your own mind. There's always someone cleverer and more charming than you who's happy to tell you what you're about and what you want if you hesitate. The daily, many-pronged assault on the emotions and intellect of the public is only really hinted at by the film, and then it's only shown as a joke on all of us. Anyone who's seen 'Super Size Me' understands the power of lobbyists, their deftness and slipperiness and clout. It's harder to roll your eyes at lawsuits levelled at McDonalds for making kids fat, when you realise the extent and muscle of the infrastructure put in place to, essentially, make kids make themselves fat. So what 'Thank You For Smoking' nudges at - frustratingly, when it could have been a good and sardonic shove - is that you can and should turn this culture of coercion against itself. It shows how you can springboard yourself into a state of savvyness. Being in that freed state, understanding the game, means you can get on in the world - just as Naylor does. It's this that you're left with, applauding the all-knowing dude who succeeds in playing the players, and feeling a tiny bit wiser to the whole racket yourself. It's satisfying enough, but where there could have been a noisy grunt of discontent at people's compliant brain-mush-dom, shot through with a fat streak of sinister warning and evil glee, there are only tame and warm smirks.

It *seems* awfully daring, and it's true there are some going-straight-to-hell sniggers about cancer, death and mendacity to be had, but it's a missed opportunity to say something insidious. Still, where Hollywood films are concerned, anything with well-judged satirical content is always going to shine out like the sun from Naylor's ass. Also, all film reviews are bullshit.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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