RIORI Vol 3, Installment 83: Jason Reitman’s “Thank You For Smoking” (2005)



The Players…

Aaron Eckhard and Cameron Bright, with Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, Sam Elliot, JK Simmons, Rob Lowe and Robert Duvall.


The Story…

In the competitive market of the tobacco industry, it’s good to have an “in” into the public mind to best promote cancer, heart disease, emphysema and a stinky wardrobe. That’s where guys like lobbyist Nick Naylor steps in.

He’s a shill for cigarettes and a single dad. He has scruples when it comes to rearing his bright son, but when Big Tobacco calls, he’s their sleazy, immoral mouthpiece.

So when the assignment of his career invites getting a very high profile for his efforts how can he convince his son his work is worthy?

Check that. Convince? Try con rather.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em?


The Rant…

Okay. Confession time. Again.

I am a smoker. Twenty years gone. I’m not proud of it but I won’t deny it either. Like the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I’ll smoke. I’ll get the cancer. I’ll die. Deal? Thank you, America.”

The fact that Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer gives me pause. And some teensy bit of black hope. Denial is more than just a river in Africa.

My ugly habit emerged in my senior year of college. I was studying to become a secondary ed English teacher. Middle and high school students. It was a stress ball of the first degree, the curriculum, the course load. In addition to maintaining steady attendance of my regular classes, I had to shoehorn some time in the morning three hours a day, five days a week as student teacher at the nearest middle school. Those pre-pubers were a handful and a half. Never realized how short we all we back then. And mouthy. And at the dawn of the ‘rents blaming little Johnny and Janie for their sh*tty test scores on Teach being ineffectual whilst ignoring the thumb-worn PlayStation controllers and mouldering library cards. Ah, Millenials. Here’s the world you wrought on the public educational system.

To claim it was all a stress magnet is akin to suggesting that Gordon Ramsay may have a potty mouth. Us student teachers were shoved into an environment that not only took us away from other classes, but our very perception of reality. And let alone declaring said classes as the only classes that mattered at a university that virtually invented the liberal arts education, but also a responsibility of teaching our young charges by proxy. They may have been our kids (our “project”), but it was the host teacher’s class. Big diff, and a hand tying one at that. We as novices were supposed to have said hands on learning how to conduct a class. But the host teacher was stern, ever watching us to make sure we didn’t “undo” all that was learned prior to our intrusion. It was like perpetual internment in the principal’s office. Especially when us would-be educators proved the perfect foil to Teach when mom and dad came calling once again, Wii nunchuck wrapped around their necks.

Sleep deprived, coffee level low, profs scowling. A great many of us took to vices to counter the blows. Some began drinking more. Others turned to pot or even speed, which was hard to come by, but not impossible. Kept one alert, and since Red Bull hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet it did the trick (not to mention sleep dep’ and teeth grinding). The rest of our lot of us took up smoking. Including me.

I eventually graduated, secondary English ed sheepskin in hand. I’ve since lost it, figuratively as well as literally. But the tobacco habit stuck. I won’t lie to you (this time), but my first forays into cigarettes were less that dignified. Sure, the puffing was mellowing, but the deeper intakes were wrenching. I puked quite a bit, but kept going back. Guess that’s how potent nicotine can be. I learned that drug stimulates your frontal lobes. Meaning it gives your brain a boost, thinking faster. Which is also why a drag clears your head for a bit, until it doesn’t. Then on to the next butt.

In itself, nicotine is harmful in a minor sense compared to way it’s delivered. Tobacco has all that tar that coats your lungs until they look like briquettes, f*cks up your pulmonary system into high blood pressure at best and choking the heart into cardiac arrest at worse. You might lose a lung. You might lose both. You might die.

Yet smokers keep sucking them devil cigarettes up, Grim Reaper be damned.

I know all this, yet I still haven’t quit, even though falling from grace a potential force for good molding minds around the beauty of Shakespeare, Stephen King and how to sight parental forgeries on crappy tests.

I instead entered the culinary world, where me and my misfit peers are poster boys for delinquency in the eyes of the American Lung Association. The booze and speed boosters are there, too. How do you want your steak cooked?

Why is this? I mean, beyond the head rush cigarettes lend? There is open science as to what cigarettes do, their damage and how pernicious their addiction can be. Yet a million miles of voice boxed words are ignored. Guess the research ain’t in yet, as Congress would lead you to believe.

Here’s a tale that may codify the typical tobacco addiction. I mentioned before that my first foray into smoking was less than Hollywood golden days glamourous. For some odd reason (perhaps it was the brand I got introduced to) my smoke of choice was the raspy Kamel Reds. Apart from Lucky Strikes, this was the late 20th Century take on inhaling steel wool soaked in lime juice for a week. I convinced myself they were yummy. After a late night at the cafe I worked at I put out half a pack of these devils and a few more on my way home. It was when the key hit the lock when the buzz rebelled. I darted to the toilet as if all the demons in hell were on my ass, awaiting my supple anus. I puked violently, the sputum reeking of lattes and smoke. I caught my breath, staggered out to the stoop and lit up.

That’s what it’s all about. Unsure on all fronts, but that post-barf cig sure cleared my brain. Of what I wasn’t sure. Here’s my point.

There is no point. Cigarettes are addictive and understandably no good for you, no matter what the lobbyists try to spin. They cause cancer and heart disease. It’s an open secret. So why does Big Tobacco insist on having lobbyists? Isn’t that in the government’s eyes (as well as popular opinion that reads things beyond what’s smeared on a smartphone) kinda suspect? Any cause embroiled in controversy deserves a spotlight, and Big Tobacco has been in the glare for decades. Precious little has happened beyond bigger warning labels. But people don’t really read anymore, right?

How does this happen, this commercial shadowplay? Money. Big money. Big lobbyist spin doctors backed by Big Tobacco backed by smoking assh*les like yours truly. We have met the enemy and they are us. Why does Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and the NRA never lay it down frankly what their agendum is? Bad for business, because we need that rush, keep the demons in our heads at bay and make sure non-Whites stay off their collective lawns.

This isn’t reactionary, populist, Alex Jones bile here. It’s (kinda) the truth. But the research isn’t in yet.

All this schadenfreude is suspect beyond the beyond. And it invites the question: what kind of doosh would promote this trash? Smoking is “cool?” That is so tired. It’s the trite throwaway reason tobacco-shilling rats claim what gets kids to smoke in the first place. On air, on screen. Doesn’t happen much these days. But wait! The endless Internet. YouTube. Vines. WordPress. There are always outlets to let the impressionable public that smoking looks is to be hip!

Nope. Smoking as cool is overrated, as well as wrong.

Millenials most likely never caught that scene in Now, Voyager where a suave Paul Henreid shares a smoke with femme fetale Bette Davis. Looked cool. Too bad most Millenials never saw Now, Voyager starring Paul who and Bette what. In black and white! Anathema. The scene was iconic, and very cool. But unless their Hulu stream is deep, viewers were smoking before the queue caught up.

Folks smoke to reduce stress. Looking cool caught smoking is so 20th Century. Passe. Stress, anxiety, headaches. The stuff of legend to the working class. Nothing cool there. Not to day traders, cops or willing educators. Stress is the total opposite of cool. Neither is the escape, be it cigarettes, beer or reds.

Put that in your pipe, lobbyists. And suck…


Nick Naylor (Eckhardt) is a dream. He’s a death merchant with a heart of gold. He’s a dedicated dad who’s got his son’s best interests in mind. He’s a committed business man committed to wreck and ruin. He’s hopelessly naive and keenly aware of the duties of his chosen profession. Of which is deplorable.

Nick is a lobbyist on the part of Big Tobacco. His job? Use his gift of gab to both decry and admit to the ups and downs of smoking in the same sentence. He’s very good at this spin, much to the chagrin of the people (barely) close to him. Like his son.

Nick’s job security is in flux. Turns out the Millenials are cleaning up their act. Smoking ain’t as “cool” as it used to be. Media, both open and social are decrying cigarettes and in turn folks are hanging up their Bics. Nick’s boss B.R. (Simmons) has made/concocted a scheme to secure their post. He sends Nick on his way to meet The Captain (Duvall), a venerated tobacco baron. The Captain has a ploy to make smoking “cool” again: get cigarettes in the back in the movies. Worked in his youth. So say Nick, how’s your generation coughing lately?

This would be Nick’s ultimate pitch, against all odds for his odious career to really take flight. Too bad tough-on-tobacco (the fantastically named) Senator Ortolan Finisirre (Macy) has his dander up. The opposite of Nick’s crusade, the senator views his crushing Big Tobacco would make his mark in the Senate.

And the race is on, all the way to the very Kool Hollywood…


There is comedy and there is black comedy. And there is tar black comedy.

Hang on. Before we go any further let me light up.

*cough, hack, spit*

Ever watch a black comedy whose premise is so wicked, so demented, so sensible you don’t know when to laugh? Thank You For Smoking is all that and more. Its send-up is so ridiculous, so absurd and so composed (not to mention dry) you have a hard time drawing the line between yuk-yuk and huh? Smoking makes you think so long go with it. Turn off, tune in, light up.

Smoking is the fine debut directorial effort of Jason Reitman. This movie is more or less his acid test. He went on to better things (Young Adult jumps immediately to mind, also covered here), but this his rough draft for future comedic triumphs. All the hallmarks are present. Very dry, wry humor. Offbeat without a Wes Anderson bent. His characters caught in moral trap of their own doing (and often undoing). It’s all naked here. Perhaps a tad too naked.

I make this claim based on after watching Smoking it creeped at corners that Reitman the younger had something to prove. He’s had some big shoes to fill with dad Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman and mom Genevieve “Casual Sex” Robert. Despite his stiff delivery with Smoking Jason honors no allegiance to the ‘rents. His idea of desperate comedy sniffs more of Jim Jarmusch than Jim Carrey. His muse is so dry it chafes. Smoking screams that. It also screams, “Wait, this is funny?”

And, surprise, Smoking was funny, but definitely not laugh out loud. Not even a snicker. The humor is passive. You can’t believe what you’re watching. We’re supposed to get behind a mealy-mouthed spin doctor who is a committed Dad who treats his child as a client to make him sympathize with the nature of his odious profession?

Uh, yeah.

You just gotta go with that. There are no overt one-liners to chuckle at. No sight gags (not really). Nothing broad. It’s all prickly and pointed. So much that you forget Smoking‘s supposed to be a comedy.   A black comedy. And we ain’t talking mid-80s Eddie Murphy fare.

Simply put, Smoking is not funny. Except when it wants to be. Hint at rather.

Ultimately, Smoking is a character study, right down to the voice-overs. That’s where to humor rears its cancer-ridden agendum. The banter amongst the caricatures. The desperate stereotypes. The flat affect of “just a job to do.” In the face of these very basic tropes, you gotta pay attention here. I mean, if you do laugh, it happens in the next scene.

So. It’s our rouges’ gallery mannerisms that carry the giggles. Character study, remember? Our antihero Nick. He’s our avatar through the dingy business of tobacco-pushing. He’s also the spearhead through this kooky cast of opportunistic, shallow government slimes to get a grip on all the ends that justify the means. All as cool and calm as winds across the Mojave.

That said, I think we found Eckhardt’s hacky acting niche. I’ve labeled the man reliably unreliable. Almost whatever score he blows based on coming across all plastic. For every exception (The Core, The Dark Knight) he drops the ball more than he catches (The Black Dahlia, Battle: Los Angeles). The guy’s talented, as well as narrow and compartmentalized. Flat affect, all the time. His agent must have a 20-20 lazy eye. Or Aspberger’s.

The flat presence works to his advantage in Smoking. Eckhardt’s Nick is a cypher. Add on what you may.  And that niche mentioned above? Being smarmy. He’s soaking in it. As well being in complete, convincing oblivion to it. It’s his job. He’s very good at. And it’s never about the smokes, not really. It’s about having purpose, regardless of the ends. Which are always quickly justified in the next choked breath.

The passive sense of humor here is Nick’s responses to his peers and superiors. Eckhardt is defiantly not funny. His Nick is anti-funny. It’s circle, quick with either a quip or a one-liner making smoking a worthwhile hobby—er, habit rather. While Nick sounds like Fox News, his supporting cast babbles like…well, Fox News about opportunism. Such opportunism paints Nick as the innocent here. There’s a Monty Python meets Woody Allen humor at work. Like I said about Reitman’s slow out of the gate start, the humor is dry but the premise is so preposterous. If Smoking as a whole wasn’t ridiculous (and being very good at that), the supporting cast would justify it as so based mostly on Nick’s passive responses to the weirdness he’s been dealt in the name of climbing the career ladder.

For the nonce, Nick is surrounded by a circus of oddballs directing his possible promotions, and he boinks off all of them and never really taking the baton. Simmons is his usual clipped, blustery self. Duvall chews scenery as the stereotypical Southern tobacco baron, mint juleps at the ready. Fellow spin doctors Bello and Koechner are the The Three Stooges in two, babbling about misery and corruption as business as usual while Nick quietly chews a steak. A cameo by Stanley Tucci as an anti-smoking terrorist. Sam Elliot as Sam Elliot. Nick’s whole mouthpiece is here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. The ping-pong ball delivery is where Smoking gets it’s irreverence. You don’t root for Nick. You’re not allowed to. But you’re allowed to boo and laugh at him, so hapless is his crusade backed by all these morons.

Overall, there is a veneer of some kind of satire happening. Big shocker. It’s razor thin between a PSA and a terminal facepalm. Here’s where Reitman may be pushing too hard. I say if there were any more symbolism here the script would’ve been transcribed via semaphore. Smoking‘s humor may be arid, satirical, absurd and trace but it’s supposed to be an outright comedy. Doesn’t fully reach that, what with being in the valley of the shadow. If Reitman was reaching for a black comedy subtly was absent. Based on that precept, Smoking is disagreeable but not unlikeable. That lack of subtlety was part of the gag, but was omnipresent and therefore got kinda tired. Fast.

So this installment’s been mixed. Since I know that Reitman was bound for greater things I give a pass to Smoking‘s pitfalls. I’m the sympathetic sort. I did get the joke, even without a single laugh. Big problem with the flick is that for all the manic, passive nonsense Smoking was busy, busy, busy. Too much happening all at once. Right. Pacing was rough. Like I said I got the joke…in the next scene.

This might be my most clinical take ever at RIORI. Might be because I’m a customer of folks like Nick and am trying to rationalize something. Maybe the film made me squirm with guilt of my nicotine habit. Maybe its chafing humor laid a giggle in my brain but my lungs were too weak to cough out an actual laugh. Whatever. Truth be told, Smoking was too loony, subdued and justifying the Ministry of Silly Walks to have me walk away with a feeling of contentment. Smoking made me feel both ugly and cynical at the same time. Credit Reitman’s yeoman’s work.

Light ’em up.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A sympathetic rent it. Consider this film a dry run for Reitman. Also the most pointed, absurdist PSA committed to film. Don’t smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. And do smoke if you’re a burgeoning educator. A guy like Nick’ll get your back. Cough.


Stray Observations…

  • “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
  • Aw crap. Katie Holmes. With Eckhart. All we need is Aniston for the ideal trifecta of gah.
  • “If you argue correctly you’re never wrong.” Not quite Hallmark territory. Even better.
  • The Birks might have been a bit too much.
  • “Get your ass on the next flight to Winston-Salem!”
  • I don’t think Nick’s kidding about his motive of “population control.”
  • “It’s an inside joke.”
  • Who isn’t slimy in this movie?
  • Angel wings on Joey’s back? We get it.
  • This movie felt like slow-burn (so to speak) Jerry Maguire in reverse.
  • “You wanna hug me here?”

Next Installment…

The Grey wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature.

Like lost, injured and frostbitten humans.


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s