Cinophile: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING

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Spokespeople are infuriating. They generally appear to do damage control and as such manage to say a lot without saying anything at all. Some even answer questions without addressing the question. This art of double-talk is visited often in movies like Wag The Dog and Network. But only one has really come at it from the angle of a truly despicable industry: the cigarette world. 

You’d think such a movie would be like shooting fish in a barrel and there are many obvious places to go. Yet Thank You For Smoking is a bit smarter than that. What could have simply been a tirade against smoking and corporate shenanigans turns out to be far more than the sum of its parts. There are no real low-blows or quick jabs, nor any heavy-handed lecturing. If anything, Thank You For Smoking is a breezy, almost inconsequential comedy. This makes it a remarkable experience that hasn’t really been rivaled since.

Aaron Eckhart appears in his star-making role as Nick Naylor, a smooth-talking spokesperson for the tobacco industry. Apart from sensing Naylor’s extreme ability and confidence thanks to his narration, the audience is soon treated by a scene on a talk show where he manages to turn a hostile audience completely against his rivals. But Naylor’s job is a bit tougher, not the least thanks to his starchy corporate boss and expectations of the tobacco head honcho. Faced with declining cigarette sales, Naylor has to step things up – while at the same time trying to build a relationship with his estranged son and enjoying an affair with a young journalist.

But none of these are really the story of Thank You For Smoking. In fact, the plot is all over the place and relies on dramatic twists to change gears. Instead it’s a snapshot of a tobacco industry shark’s career as he comes to a crucial decision point. The movie’s real victory is in how it humanises the main character without either making the industry he works for more human or offering apologies for its conduct. There is no Erin Brockovich-air of redemption and retribution: no feel-good story about morality and being the better person.

But it’s not about immorality either and Naylor doesn’t ever feel like a bad guy, nor a good guy forced to make bad choices. His opaque judgement is something that we can really relate to, because Eckhart makes him a real and likable human being. The rest of the cast, which includes Rob Lowe, J.K Simmons, Katie Holmes, William H. Macey and Robert Duvall, manage to highlight this by intentionally being less human. They are all out for their own means and Naylor becomes the person who has to deal with their ambitions.

Thank You For Smoking isn’t perfect, but still takes movies to a level of art. It says so little and yet lays out so much, all without hammering on its topic or playing for cheap thrills. We’d see this kind of genius again  from Jason Reitman with Juno, but Thank You For Smoking is arguably even better than that and one of the best comedies made in the 21st century.

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Thank You For Smoking is based on a book of the same name, the rights of which were bought in the mid-Nineties. But it languished in pre-production, mainly because there wasn’t a filmable script. Jason Reitman had read the book and created an independent script – which he took to the producers when he found out they owned the rights. It still didn’t get filmed, partly because the studios insisted in script changes, until mogul David O. Sacks agreed to finance the film and allow Reitman to use his script as he sees fit. Ironically following its Sundance debut there was a bit of a war between studios over who actually bought the distribution rights.

 

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There are several moments in the film that spoof the real cigarette industry. Like the retired advertising actor in the film, the real Marlboro Man had serious health problems due to smoking and did get into a serious battle with the Phillip Morris Company. It in turn did try to deny he was even in Marlboro ads. Another spoof is of a cigarette ad saying how doctors enjoy smoking a certain brand – an echo of an old Camel campaign. Curiously you can’t actually see any smoking in this movie.

 

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Almost every first choice for the various characters agreed to take the roles, because Jason Reitman wrote a personal letter to each actor explaining why he wanted them to be part of the project. But before he got involved the movie underwent several casting changes. Both Mel Gibson and Dwayne Johnson were considered for the lead role. The film had a moment of scandal regarding a sex scene between Aaron Eckhart and Katie Holmes – rumour had it then-husband Tom Cruise was not happy with a sex scene and had it cut out. But it was actually left out by a clumsy projectionist and the scene appeared in the theatrical release.

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: May 4, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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