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.

RIORI Volume 3, Installment 10: Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (2000)

Wonder Boys

The Players…

Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes and Robert Downey, Jr.

The Story…

Writing professor Grady Tripp is at a crucial juncture in his career, his relationships and his life. It’s unfortunate he doesn’t realize this. After relentless years trying to write the follow-up to his first, critically acclaimed novel with no success, he looks elsewhere for some inspiration as well as a leg to stand on. It’s a fruitless journey, and the prospect of only having teaching to fall back on/shackled to mediocrity to reaffirm his dwindling esteem isn’t helping his quest bear fruit. Still always teaching, always teaching.

Unbeknownst to Grady—as well as by most signposts along the road—his best student James might be able to offer some perspective (however bleak) on how to make some decent choices, both within and without a book at your back. It might take a few pills, however.

The Rant…

This time out, I promise to try and play nice. Try, mind you.

About a year ago—give or take—I covered Gus Van Zant’s Finding Forrester. It was a mentor/protégé story about a young writer trying to find his voice and a reclusive, older writer trying to coax his adolescent charge to discover “the writer within. The critics tore it to shreds and hawked up the jetsam all over the sidewalk. The plot was accused of being very derivative, and comparisons to Van Zant’s previous effort, Good Will Hunting abounded. Such gripes weren’t unwarranted. Still, it remains a pet film of mine. Chalk it up to my idol worship of Sean Connery—who was the titular lead—and newcomer Rob Brown’s earnest portrayal as Forrester’s insecure pupil and eventual friend, Jamal. There was a lot of sentimental drivel, and not all the roles were acted well (sometimes plummeting into stereotypes), but I feel thanks to Connery and Brown’s chemistry, the film ended up be better than the sum of its parts.

Despite me being all crass and bitchy, I’m a sentimental fool at heart. Buddy movies revolving around writing always both nab my attention and lift my spirits, even if the film is properly labeled derivative and shallow (or simply just plain lame. Sue me). Call it a guilty pleasure, like Double Stuf Oreos, ABBA and any movie “Savage” Steve Holland directed.


If you got it, you know. Check the IMDB if not. Then stream One Crazy Summer. One of Cusack’s finest 🙂

See? I’m already trying to be more cordial. Sure it’s hurting my jaw, but I think it’ll be worth it. I think. I hope.

This year we have a similar movie, but it avoids the trappings of overt sentimental claptrap, unlike Forrester. At least at the outset. I mean, c’mon, you can’t have a mentor/student story without at least a little frosting on the cupcake. The two characters gotta eventually like each other, or at least reach a mutual understanding, By extension so should the audience. But I think—know—that establishing such necessary bonds don’t need to involve a lot of hugs and being maudlin. Was Forrester that way? Yeah, at times. But I managed to overlook it, again mostly thanks to the great Sean Connery and his fantastically unconvincing hairpiece.

I think it might be possible to pull such a story off with somewhat unpleasant characters that seem to be at odds with one another for almost the entire movie. And I’m talking reciprocal apprehension and even hostility here. Hell, worked for the Lethal Weapon movies (Okay. Bad example). That kind of dynamic makes for some juicy tension, and as any writer worth their salt can tell you: stories thrive on and are driven by tension. Sometimes the tension in a movie isn’t dictated solely by this precept, mind you. Tension in a story can take up many different guises. There’s the classic man-vs.-society trope (think Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), or the man-vs.-self idiom (again, Brazil), or the man-vs.-the unknown scenario (also…you get it). Sometimes the leads may just be drifting, ships in the night kind of thing, passively poking each other’s brainpans. Y’know, eventually sort of mirroring each other’s issues. A cracked mirror maybe. Still, being poked is being poked, and sooner or later someone’s gotta scratch at that itch…

Professor Grady Tripp (Douglas) doesn’t believe in writer’s block. He instructs his writing students that all you have to do is keep on writing. And writing. It’s how he he’s kept at his latest novel. Latest, that is, since his first published book…seven years ago.

In the interim, regardless of any encouraging words to his class, Grady’s had a tough time of it. His wife left him. He’s in Dutch with the university’s chairman of the writing department—not to mention Grady having an affair with his wife Sarah (McDormand), the school’s Chancellor. Like most is pro choices, looks like the good professor never learned to not sh*t where one eats.

In addition to his tryst, Grady is having to deal with his smarmy editor Terry (Downey), whose very job hinges getting Grady’s still unfinished second book—a spiraling, out of control, 2000-plus pages, nary an ending in sight monster—to print. His prodding another nagging reminder of Grady’s career arrest. And with the annual Wordfest fast approaching, there’s his class to consider, and who’ll be the next candidate to maybe win a publishing deal. All this straddles Tripp’s ever weakening shoulders.

Oh, there’s also this matter of his star pupil, withdrawn, morbid James Leer (Maguire). What is up with this introverted, sullen kid? His kind feels all too familiar for Grady.

The kid’s got talent; some real promise. If only Grady could coax a little humanity out of the guy. But James is dodgy, distant and like one too many caricatures of solitary, troubled, genius writers of the past. Terry thinks James could easily be published, and a success story like that might lift Grady’s slumping spirits. Something like that might make the daily grind of his job gain some meaning again.

That could be all good for Grady, but with all that other crap looming large—and his increasingly unhealthy weed habit—he doubts himself as being the ideal candidate for a mentor. Besides, there’s always that damned novel at his back.

Professor Tripp says he won’t acknowledge writer’s block. It looks like Grady won’t acknowledge any responsiblities, either…

Obeying The Standard, Wonder Boys got stuck in the tender trap of critical acclaim bookended with sh*tty box office returns. It only recouped a little more than half of its initial $55 million budget, even after Michael Douglas charged half of his going rate (yeah, he has a going rate). By Hollywood standards it more or less meant, “Yay! Craft services got covered! Now there’s all this promo crap we gotta do to pay for our valet parking fees!” I guess that’s showbiz. But in the final analysis, Wonder Boys was not a flop; the film wouldn’t have shown up here at RIORI otherwise. It didn’t find itself sweeping the gold dust off its shoulders, either. Right in line, step in time. We’re hugging the median here.

Forrester didn’t fare so hot, too. It might’ve been the weak script—more like predictable script—that put people off. Or maybe it was blah supporting characters. Perhaps it was you could see the ending a light-year away. Me? I blame Anna Paquin. In any event, Boys shares a similar vibe with Forrester and not just in middling box office returns. There’s the whole writer connection, not to mention the dysfunctional nature of both character’s practicing their craft. Also the whole difference in age thing, as well as the mentor/student relationship. Plus the whole “rising star, setting sun,” passing-the-torch schtick. Both movies were even released in the same year, for Christ’s sake (Boys in February 2000, Forrester in December 2000). By the last factoid, one might wonder—maybe even aloud—if one influenced the other to some degree. Unsure, on all fronts.

In spite of both movies have similar themes, comparing Forrester to Boys is like comparing a Ford Windstar to a Ferrari P4/5. Sure, they’re both cars, and they’ll get you to where you need to go. But it’s how they get you to your destination that makes the difference (sorry for the repeat of driving metaphors. It’s tough to for me to be original when I’m minding my manners. Now back the f*ck off).

To be totally honest, I had seen Wonder Boys before. It was over a decade ago, during my wilderness years. Yeah, I know I talk about those chemically enhanced—or depending on how you look at it, retarded—days a lot here. You’re no doubt a tad sick of it. I understand; you’ve seen a pattern forming. I’m not proud of those wasted—literally—years, but I’m not going to deny them, either. It’d be like Grady Tripp telling James to lay off his dope: I should know better. More accurately, I wish I knew then what I know now. There are times where your sole purpose in life is to serve as an example—or warning—to others. Even to yourself.

And that’s one to grow on. Anyway:

Yeah, I “saw” Wonder Boys many years previous. Not sure how I recalled seeing the thing at all. It was only happenstance—maybe more like a willful memory cell finally recovering from the hangover—that I foggily remembered it. After scouring Box Office Mojo, surprise, its lame returns from the Cineplex and high praise from the movie snobs granted Boys entrance into The Standard’s club. So, yay.

Now I got to watch the movie with a mostly clear head. I think back in the day Boys’ premise caught my attention, what with the story about struggling writers in a collegiate setting. It might also have been Grady’s debilitating weed abuse, of which I could relate. Well, whatever. This week, I blew away the dust and actually watched and even appreciated the thing. That’s right: appreciated. However my enjoyment of Boys in relation to Forrester is like comparing apples to aquarium gravel. Regardless of the movies’ similar archetypes, I found Boys to be the superior film, even with my warm fuzzy for Connery.

First of all with Boys, it’s refreshing to see a quirky character study that doesn’t stagger into Wes Anderson territory. Don’t get me wrong. I think Anderson’s films are a blast, but they’re a little wanting in the subtlety department. I mean, c’mon, you can’t always have your cast of dysfunctional characters act like rejects from a Fellini-esque Adam Sandler flick (think about that. Now, sorry). You can only go so far, or do much with quirky characters until they start to distract the audience from the story proper. Admit it, even Anderson suffers from this problem. A lot can be said for carefully setting up a film’s characters to not come across as conflicted, gonzo loons in the first act, or first scene for that matter. Conflicted, sure. Remember what I said about creating tension? Right, and using a l’il bit of Vaseline on the lens focusing on our dramatis personae can sometimes go a lot longer, eventually feeling a lot more investing than a perpetual Bill Murray signature slouch. In Boys, director Hanson takes us for a car ride, off and on, down the road of elegant character study.

Make no mistake, like with Forrester’s struggling writers, Boys is first and foremost a character study. But that is where the similarities end. Where Forrester was optimistic, Boys has a dark, almost impenetrable heart. First what’s notable is Grady’s flat narration. We fast learn that he’s a writer, even though in the first paragraph he mentions his absentee wife, his affair with Sarah, him being beleaguered with his teachings and students, particularly James and Holmes’ Hannah (whom I failed to find any real justification for being in the movie…or any movie, really), and him trying to compensate for the inability to complete his second book, which has become like the proverbial albatross. In the first paragraph! Narrating! Even when the rest of the cast makes their presence known on screen, it’s all drawn faces and feelings of resignation. No color here, yet they’re already quite vivid. No French Bowie soundtrack either. Calm down. I thought Zissou was great. Go read the review.

Since we’ve now established that Boys is a character study, we’d better pray that the characters are interesting. Compelling. Fully fleshed out.

Not necessarily likeable.

It’s a common fallacy that characters in fiction must be likeable. Bzzzt. Wrongo. C’mon, is Hannibal Lecter really a likeable dude? What about Darth Vader? Or even Walter White from Breaking Bad? One’s a psycho who eats people, one’s an evil overlord who tried to kill his own kids and one’s a dying, desperate man engaging in some dubious method of establishing life insurance. And if any of those examples were spoilers, too f*cking bad and get more culture. Do those guys really sound like any one of them would be a good bar bro? What, really? Then you belong on the list.

Good characters must be interesting. Grady and James are not likeable. But they sure ain’t boring.

Take James for instance. He’s hollow, but not in a bad way. There’s something lacking in Maguire’s performance. I’m not saying the performance itself is lacking; James has this omnipresent need for something, like he’s been searching to fill up said hollowness. He’s cold, taciturn, naïve and about as cuddly as a teddy bear stuffed with cactus needles. All we know from the outset is that James is a very talented writer and so socially awkward and morose you want to alternately smack and flee him. It’s a far cry from Maguire’s role as Spidey two years later, and a heck of a lot more weighty.

Then we have James’ foil—maybe it could be viewed the other way ‘round—Grady. Douglas’ Professor Tripp is a prickly, self-absorbed, philandering mope. He has a drug problem he won’t own up to. His novel’s going nowhere except into infinity. He’s not terribly involved in his students, if not outright disdainful. He’s made a lot of sh*t choices in his misspent life, and he fails to either realize this or just won’t admit it to himself. You’d like to tell Grady to go take a flying leap, or smack him upside the head maybe. He may be a drudge, but he’s also intriguing.

Both James and Grady have a rich backstories to draw from. What the hell happened to them? This is what draws us into their worlds, and makes us curious to where’ll they take us. It’s the whole “then what happens?” ploy I spoke of in the Iron Man 2 installment. It may be a ploy, but it’s a classic device that works. In this case, two misfits find each other in disparate, yet somehow familiar predicaments and try to help each other get out of them. The way this goes down is due to a little something called “chemistry.”

Grady and James don’t have much chemistry at the start. There’s more like this wary frustration towards one to the other, and an enervating obtuseness the other way around. Plenty of metaphors revolve around both our leads’ personalities. Heck, there’s even a not so subtle play on words regarding our characters’ names. James really is leery about everything, especially his worth as a writer. With Tobey’s eternal wide-eyed gaze, he always looks like he wish he could understand what was going on around him.

Grady’s been fumbling through life for so long now he keeps getting the way of himself by increasingly bad choices (there’s also the whole thing with his dope and his “episodes”). But over time, and with a wary understanding, some warmth develops between Tripp and Leer. They bond, and of course learn that they have a lot more in common than they thought. That and they give each other advice which turns out to save them both. Classic setup.

All of this could be just another Hollywood hackneyed story device; the whole mentor/student thing I mentioned above. What makes it work is Boys is not the story’s execution—which is done quite well for being a stock buddy/redemption tale—it’s the character interplay. This is a character study, right? So let’s talk about these weirdoes in greater depth.

Let’s poke more at Tripp’s body. Douglas has a defeated countenance a mile wide. You can even hear it in his voiceover. There’s something about this narration that enhances defeat (and no, I’m not going to yak on about that device again. You’re welcome). To be simple, Boys’ narration is unobtrusive and limited. You almost forget there is any until Tripp starts grousing again. But when his narration does speak, it has two voices. One is the writer in him—from what is said, Grady is one frustrated writer— which makes him a frustrated person. Two is the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with…everything. Nothing’s worked out for Tripp, and it’s all laid out along the path of his poor judgment. You can see it on the screen, what with every facet of his life ricocheting off of one wrong choice after another. He’s miserable, but not worthy of pity since he’s the cause of his own undoing.

Douglas is truly channeling his dad here, although Kirk would never do a film like this one. The senior Douglas played roles where he was tough but vulnerable. It was that vulnerability that made audiences get behind him. Even in his epic roles like Paths Of Glory and Spartacus (oddly, both Kubrick films, himself a master of contradicting expectations), Kirk’s characters were riddled with self-doubt and reluctant, but convincing conviction. Michael’s Professor Tripp is a lot like this paradigm, but over the course of Boys he rediscovers his conviction. It’s not there at the start. It’s blurred by self-doubt, self-delusion and (you guessed it) the ganja. How much you wanna bet he gets his sh*t together by movie’s end? It ain’t so clear for like three quarters of the film mind you.

Who is worthy of our sympathies is James. Here’s a guy, regardless of his distance and just plain creepy demeanor (or maybe because of it) who needs guidance. Someone or something to draw him out of his shell. He’s in desperate need of an “attaboy.” James is a unique pairing for Tripp. James is naïve, childlike and brooding. Grady broods, too, but fails to acknowledge his own naïveté/ignorance. However since James’ persona is so awkward and removed, he tends to put others off. Small wonder why Tripp reluctantly takes James under his wing. Actually, it’s more like James forces Grady’s hand. Not to worry, James warms up as the story progresses in an organic manner, as Grady starts to thaw in a similar fashion. It’s an uneasy alliance, to be sure, but it’s a little less contrived than the bond in Forrester was.

Other highlights of character interplay are the twin prongs of Downey’s “Crabs” and McDormand’s Sarah. Downey’s smarminess is his stock in trade. Sure, it’s pervasive in all his roles, from Weird Science to Iron Man, but when we get the right script, boom, it works wonders, slicker than snot. Crabs is smarmy, to be sure, but he wears the crap like a shield. You can tell from the beginning that he’s an insecure, anxious and frankly scared individual trying to hide something. It only becomes clear towards the end what he’s really all about. And he’s just as human as the other failing characters.

The only other major player in Boys is McDormand, and she’s probably the one with least issues. McDormand is as sincere as ever, and whenever she delivers her lines, it’s the voice of reason. Shrill, accusing reason, but reason nonetheless. Sarah might be the only individual in Boys who really gives a sh*t about Grady’s downward spiral, which sentiment is delivered in such a brusque, pointed way you might mistake her for the antagonist. But as you’ve probably gathered, this film requires patience for all the petals to open, and McDormand’s satisfying as ever delivery punctuates the story where necessary to deflate Grady’s sooty ego.

But there’s always gotta be a wild card, and Holmes fits the bill. IMHO, she’s always been about making face, not acting well. I was quite glad she was excised for The Dark Knight, to be sure. Here in Boys I couldn’t figure out the purpose of her being around. Sure, she might be Grady’s latest exploit with his wife being gone and Sarah just out of arm’s reach, but that’s barely touched on. Hannah is just like she’s the latest distraction in Tripp’s life of being rudderless. Hey Katie, making a career out of portraying willowy, barely there brunettes does not an acting CV make, no matter how much gravity you try and apply to your roles. Holmes was flat and one-note, and barring a significant reveal I was thankful for the limited screen time.

Okay. Enough with character psychology. Now it’s time for the technical stuff. Please refer to my notes on the whiteboard.

Boys is mentor/student picture to be sure, but it’s also a strange, insinuating road trip (get it?) movie. At least half of the scenes in the movie involves driving. Behind the wheel, as a passenger in the back seat, the trunk even, Grady and James are almost constantly on the move. No real destination really, just…driving. Not a very subtle metaphor for our two leads’ lives, who both engage in a lot of “car talk.” This could be symbolic of Grady ever trying to avoid the inevitable (e.g. looking in the rearview where the past lies, perchance?). You don’t even know these maybes as fact until you’re there. Is it a response to all the “car talk”? Am I looking to deeply into this? Is this installment running a little long? Is that a stain on your shorts? Yes to all of it. Now change your shorts. I don’t wanna know where you’ve been, Sunshine.

All the car scenes invite some good camera work. It’s not just in the motoring scenes, which almost totally involve Grady behind the wheel with him yammering at whoever’s riding shotgun. Boys for the most part is a very intimate movie. How the lens managed to capture said intimacy with both close-ups as well as full shots baffled me. But it worked without a hitch. I know very little about cinematography, at least how it works. But it sure worked here. In fact, I didn’t realize it as so until I started churning out this week’s accusation. I guess that’s what we’d call a pseudo “icebox moment” (refer to last week’s tirade/review of Kick-Ass, doofus).

My favorite trapping of whether a film is decent or not here by RIORI’s Standard was well-sated with Boys. The pacing was brisk, not unlike the weather with the film. It was always snow with rain with snow again in Grady and James’ world. Again, not the most subtle of metaphors, but Boys is rife with such quaint aphorisms. It’s almost cute, but never cloying, and never distracting from the drama or comedy.

The thing with the weather? Boys is cold then warm then cold again. The cycle continues in Grady’s interactions with all the players. All of it is so grey. Not dark, grey like The Cure’s Faith album (I smell beer). The atmosphere hanging over the movie is hazy, like we’re not sure where it’s all going, and at times we don’t. In truth the movie starts to lose steam in the third act. Not completely, but it does start to wander. But with all the climate allusions throughout the film, it’s not all that surprising that the sun finally comes out in the end, literally.

I’m not terribly familiar with the work of writer Michael Chabon, whose book Boys was based upon. His relatively straightforward tale interwoven with despair and optimism, paired with Hanson’s hard-wearing yet still loopy direction begs the question: “How did this book get optioned as a movie?” I credit Hanson. His even-handed execution of a tale about, let’s face it, two unsavory characters and their strife and make it come off as hopeful might be the answer. No matter how bleak and obtuse the movie gets, Hanson keeps it light enough to keep you from either pressing STOP or running to the liquor cabinet where the miracle elixir of shoddy memory awaits (I didn’t go there during the film. I was drunk before I hit PLAY. I have a Standard to maintain myself). I say Hanson possesses a verve that keeps the candle lit no matter how strong the wind.

Boys is a sturdy little film, and a lot stronger than Forrester was. It’s an unconventional redemption tale at heart, but it asks for whom? Nothing is overtly straightforward in this movie, but it is linear as it needs to be to get the general message across, even if the message gets mired in perceived hopelessness. It’s understood that Forrester was designed as a crowd pleaser for the Xmas market. Regardless of my less than savory comments about it when paired against Boys, Forrester did please me. So string me up, already). Boys was released in the dead of winter with not much sun going for it, figuratively or literally, but it’s the superior film. It’s a bittersweet film; its humor is sharper than a serpent’s tooth, as is its pathos, but in the final analysis, Boys was the more interesting movie. And despite having an almost inevitable Hollywood ending (my only real gripe, to be sure), Boys did a pretty decent job getting there.

So what have we learned? Right. Catch me on a good day.

Whew. Trying to be cheery can really take it out of you. Now where’s a puppy I can rape and kick?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, Boys is downbeat, coal black at times and occaisionally difficult to watch. But it sure as sh*t ain’t boring.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey! It’s Richard Thomas! Looks like John Boy done finished his education!
  • “You cold, James?” “Oh, a little.”
  • Editing flub at chapter five, -1.51. Watch McDormand’s arms.
  • “She’s a transvestite.” “You’re stoned.” “She’s still a transvestite.”
  • Story goes that Douglas gained 25 pounds for his character by eating lots of pizza and guzzling beer. One wonders what came first: the pot or the pizza?
  • “I’ve got tenure.”
  • What is it about moving a body?
  • Tasteful song selection in this movie. I especially liked the use of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.” Another driving allegory? You decide.
  • “You owe him a book, too?”
  • No matter how Douglas ages, regardless of the role, all I ever see is Jack Colton.
  • Does anyone drive a “normal” car in this movie?
  • “I guess there’s probably a story behind that.”

Next Installment…

Between you and I, Robot proliferation in modern society may lend itself to human convenience, but it also may lead to dehumanizing effects on their masters. Like murder.