Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And why didn't I like this movie again?


This is the latest in my Second Chances series, in which I'm re-watching certain movies to figure out why I didn't like them as much as most people did. It runs every Tuesday.

When I was making up my list of movies to re-watch for this series, many of the titles jumped to their place on the list, without me giving them a second thought. Thank You For Smoking was one of them.

But as I was re-watching Jason Reitman's directorial debut with my wife on Saturday -- she was seeing it for the first time -- I could not for the life of me figure out why I had viewed it in such a negative light.

Okay, two things jumped to mind, but they were both pretty minor. And one of them was a complete misinterpretation.

The two things I told people, when they asked me what I didn't like about Thank You For Smoking, were:

1) I couldn't believe that for a film about smoking, there was not a single shot of a single person smoking during the entire movie;

2) I didn't like the Merchant of Death characters.

Let's take the first one first. Duh, Vance. It's an anti-smoking movie. Sure, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckchart) is the protagonist, and sure, we're supposed to sort of like him, and sure, he's a lobbyist for big tobacco. But it doesn't mean he's supposed to be successful at what he does, at least not as far as we the viewers are concerned. In fact, one major plot point is that Nick is trying to get tobacco use back into movies, to make it sexier. He wants the movie's heroes, not just its RAVs (Russians, Arabs and Villains), to smoke. There's a whole proposal to have Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones engage in a post-coital smoke in outer space in their upcoming movie, with a steep price tag for each. Any instance of cigarette smoking in Thank You For Smoking could, accidentally, have the same effect on us, making it look either sexy or cool.

At the time I first saw it, though, I thought this was a gaping hole in Reitman's execution. I thought that he had "forgotten" to show people smoking, or something. I now realize that it was, of course, quite intentional. Even the characters you know smoke -- Nick among them -- are never seen smoking. The most you ever see him do is eyeball an empty pack of his own cigarettes.

This is, of course, counter-intuitively brilliant. So counter-intuitive that it left me flummoxed for the four years since I'd first seen the movie. I mean, what would Fast Food Nation be without showing some gross-looking hamburger patties? What would Traffic be without showing someone's life go off the rails from using drugs? Yet Thank You For Smoking works differently. Not only is it a comedy, for starters, but the negative impacts of cigarette smoking are harder to dramatize, unless you're going to start hauling out a lot of scenes of people dying of cancer in hospitals. And that just doesn't work in a comedy. No, images of cigarettes end up seeming cool, in spite of the message you are actually trying to send about them. It's one of their great paradoxes -- the industry keeps its customers, and gains new ones, with poison labels on the packages, and in other countries, even pictures of diseased lungs, etc. Which is why Reitman's only choice was to show no one smoking at all in his movie about smoking.

Okay, on to the second issue.

The Merchants of Death. Every week, Nick meets with two other high-powered lobbyists, one for the alcohol industry (Polly Bailey, played by Maria Bello) and one for the firearm industry (Bobby Jay Bliss, played by David Koechner). They drink and tell war stories and laugh about the fact that they promote industries which kill people.

I didn't really buy these characters, and still don't. It's a bit of a narrative convenience that Nick is friends with exactly two other lobbyists from the two other industries that would fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I think we are meant to see these characters as metaphors, but the rest of the film is told with a decent amount of zany realism, so it forces us to accept these characters as real characters, too.

And I just didn't buy them. I didn't buy that they would get together and talk shop about the noxious things they did for their jobs. I didn't buy that they would honestly brag about which industry kills the most people each year (though to be fair, I think it's less a sadistic impulse and more a gauge of how well they succeed at something so disagreeable). But what I really didn't buy was that they would take such an interest in each other's lives. At their core, these characters should be like Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) from Reitman's Up in the Air. All they should care about is what they do and how well they do it. They shouldn't, for example, reach out to and need other human beings. And they certainly shouldn't/wouldn't be in the audience for their friend's son's debate competition, as Polly and Bobby Jay are shown doing near the end of the movie.

But as the other two Merchants of Death make up only a fairly small part of the movie, it's hardly a major criticism.

As for the rest of the film ... well, I found it daring, smart and funny. I also realized this time that if I find the protagonist problematic and unlikable, that's not because the movie hasn't done its job -- it's because it has. Nick Naylor does redeem himself over the course of the narrative, but you're not supposed to like him that much at the beginning, when he excuses his work as a means of paying the mortgage. And when you feel like he's trying to sell you something, you're supposed to feel defensive and irritated by his attempt, especially if it sort of works.

As if to confirm I was wrong all along, my wife liked the movie a lot. And, I guess, I did too.

But was I wrong all along? Funny thing is, when I checked my spreadsheet of movies afterward, to turn my "thumbs down" assessment on Thank You For Smoking into a "thumbs up," I saw that it already was. I had liked Thank You For Smoking when I originally saw it -- more than I'd disliked it, anyway. It was at some point in the interim that I'd decided it was no good, going against even myself to reach that conclusion.

Some things may always remain a mystery.

Second Chance Verdict, Thank You For Smoking: Apparently, I did like it, and I still do.

6 comments:

Don Handsome said...

Yes Sir, this is a good movie. I like it top to bottom, including the Merchants of Death – incidentally, I wonder if you're taking them too literally...this is a satire and they are individual in-the-flesh representations of billion dollar industries. Of course they don't really exist or inhabit the world the way they do in the film. Of course they are convenient inventions of the film, but it’s funny to think of them existing and hanging out. Still, glad that you came around to a more firm thumbs up. I actually think its Jason Reitman's best film.

Vancetastic said...

Juno backlash hit us all pretty hard, eh Don?

Well, I already said I was taking them too literally -- I acknowledged that their value was more symbolic (I think I used the word "metaphor"). However, I do think that they are the only parts of the movie that are quite so symbolic -- every other character is a person who could be a real character, or is a very mild exaggeration of a real character. For some reason, they just didn't work for me. Or maybe it just comes back to the fact that I don't really like Maria Bello that much.

Vancetastic said...

And by "a person who could be a real character," I of course meant "a character who could be a real person." Should always proof your comments, I guess.

Simon said...

In context, I guess the MOD squad didn't work well, but to hell if its not fun with acronyms.

Olive said...

Really liked the film and it gave a different take on Aaron Eckhart.

Vancetastic said...

@ Simon - True. I love ACRONYMS. I mean, acronyms.

@ Olive - It sounds like you were accustomed to seeing Aaron Eckhart in In the Company of Men mode. It was like this movie took that character but gave him a twist toward making him more sympathetic. Or, maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment, which is certainly possible!