Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, from his screenplay, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, may turn out to be a star-making vehicle for erstwhile character-type Aaron Eckhart, here in the unlikely role of Nick Naylor, a 90’s lobbyist for the presumably now discredited and besieged tobacco industry. Strange as it may seem, the movie itself plays out as a sparkling reverse-psychology satire, written, directed and acted on a level of wit and verve, that is, unprecedented as far as this year’s crop of American movies is concerned. It’s more reminiscent of the bright sparks of perverse humor struck by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in their respective tongue-in-cheek faux-news shows on Comedy Central. In fact, Mr. Buckley was recently a tongue-in-cheek guest on Mr. Colbert’s program indulging in a little tongue-in-cheek promotion for the movie made from his novel that languished on Hollywood’s studio rejected remainder shelves for more than a decade.
Still, what makes the movie curiously timely is its emphasis on the process of spin as opposed to the moral content of what is being spun. Several reviewers have registered mild shock that a sympathetically presented lead character should be engaged in the nefarious profession of lobbying for cancer-causing cigarette smoking. Certainly, it seems clear that Mr. Buckley and Mr. Reitman are coming at us with their dark jests from a conservative libertarian position skeptical of do-gooders in and out of the government—most conspicuously, William H. Macy’s sandal-wearing Vermont Senator Finistirre, a tobaccophobe champion of the state’s cheddar cheese and an obviously propped-up straw man if ever there were one. As Nick impishly observes at a Senate hearing trying to nail nicotine, the high cholesterol count of cheddar cheese can cause diabetes. Indeed, the multiplicity of satiric targets in Thank You For Smoking takes some of the sting out of the diabolical bravado of the central character and his even more cynical cohorts when directly confronted with the cancerous consequences of their promotions.
Much of the sympathy for Nick as a character is generated by his comfortable relationship with his adoring son Joey (Cameron Bright) whom he has for weekends in an arrangement with his happily remarried ex-wife. What Nick preaches to Joey is a form of capitalist realism that struck me at least as reasonable and practical as what my own real estate broker father preached to me, though not with Nick’s all-purpose mantra, “For the mortgage.” This mantra is brutally illustrated when Nick is sent by his superiors with a suitcase full of large bills to bribe a dying ex-Marlboro man to stop his rants against Big Tobacco. As Nick spills all the 100-dollar bills at the feet of Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), one can feel the poor wretch’s concerns about his surviving family outweighing his concerns about his own grievances. Joey is present at his father’s demonstration of the power of money to corrupt the most justifiably outraged individual.
The cream of the jest is the buoyant conviviality Nick shares with his co-evildoers, the self-styled Mod Squad for Merchants of Death: Nick for tobacco, Maria Bello’s Polly Bailey for alcohol, and David Koechner’s Bobby Jay Bliss for fire-arms. At one point Nick almost brags with a mixture of self-justification and self-inflation about how many more people die each year from smoking than from drinking or being shot.
The point is that far from being a feel-good movie, Thank You For Smoking, as its title promises, fully justifies the feeling of uneasiness expressed in many of the reviews. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and it isn’t cheddar cheese. I happen to feel that there is a profound malaise infecting everything around us far beyond anything imagined by Jimmy Carter when he unwittingly paved the way for the stupid optimism of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” The current mix of media myopia, polluted politics, and end-of-the-world fatalism, makes a well-executed piece of comic nihilism like this film seem strangely satisfying.
Even a bizarre eco-terrorist attack on Nick with a body-covering mass of nicotine patches that almost kills him, and ironically makes him incapable of ever safely smoking again, contributes to the film’s projection of a dark giddiness. A visit to Hollywood to promote a resumption of smoking on the screen in the flamboyant manner of Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in the good old days inspires a welcome turn by Rob Lowe as a bubble-headed Hollywood agent. J.K. Simmons, a mainstay of Law and Order, is much less benign here as Nick’s Big Tobacco boss, and Robert Duvall does a darkly hilarious turn as a Big Tobacco tycoon going to a cancer-driven grave without a whimper.
On the distaff side, Katie Holmes as a tell-all journalist who seduces Nick confirms one’s impression of her as a lightweight performer, particularly when she is in the same movie with the mesmerizing Maria Bello. But this movie belongs ultimately to the infinitely versatile Mr. Eckhart.
Don Siegel Tribute
Don Siegel (1912-1991), one of the chief beneficiaries of auteurist revisionism in so-called minor genres, is being honored at Film Forum with a 25-movie, four-week retrospective running from Friday, March 17, through Thursday, April 13.
This week, there’s The Beguiled (1971), with Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier on the run who finds shelter in Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman’s Louisiana women’s school. The film is a strange mixture of gothic gruesomeness and sex farce. Sharing the bill is Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), which was a flop over here but a critical sensation in Europe, with drifter Eastwood rescuing nun Shirley MacLaine from three bad men during the Mexican Revolution. (March 22-23.)
Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is the film considered by many as the most poetically persuasive science-fiction movie ever. Adapted from a story by cult author Jack Finney, the film was widely interpreted at the time as an attack on McCarthyism, with Kevin McCarthy (no relation to the Red-baiting Senator) playing a small-town doctor fighting a local plague of stolen identities and alien pod people. Dana Wynter plays the heroine until she, too, succumbs to the emotional paralysis fostered by the mysterious pods. (March 24-27.)
Another Siegel double feature kicks off with Flaming Star (1960), starring Elvis Presley as the half-breed son of an Indian woman (Dolores del Rio) and a white settler. Presley gives his best acting performance by far in an otherwise artistically undistinguished and commercially surefire movie career. Sharing the bill is Edge of Eternity (1959), with the Grand Canyon as the setting for a chasm-crossing pursuit by deputy sheriff Cornel Wilde as he tries to bring a gang of killers to justice—a film that is more a physical thriller than anything else. (March 28.)
In Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), convict ringleader Neville Brand (in real life, the fourth most decorated soldier of World War II) manipulates the media and warden Emile Meyer (the sadistic cop in Sweet Smell of Success) while trying to keep the lid on a prison hostage crisis. The film, shot in 16 days at Folsom Prison with actual cons as extras (Johnny Cash would have approved), is one of the all-time classic prison movies. Sharing the bill is Private Hell 36 (1954), in which two cops with money troubles—Steve Cochran, ensnared by gold-digging singer Ida Lupino, and Howard Duff, in hock with a new baby—stumble on stolen money. The opening robbery scene is a Siegel standout. (March 29-30.)
In Baby Face Nelson (1957), Mickey Rooney is surprisingly effective as a psychotic gangster with exuberant homicidal tendencies. Fresh from the pen, Rooney’s Nelson joins up with John Dillinger (Leo Gordon), gets plastic surgery from a corrupt doctor (Cedric Hardwick) and ends up in a last fatal car chase with his soulful gun moll, played by Carolyn Jones. Sharing the bill is The Gun Runners (1958), in which fishing-boat captain Audie Murphy (in real life, the most decorated soldier in World War II) gets blackmailed by Eddie Albert into running arms to the Cuban revolutionaries—before Albert double-crosses the rebels in this third adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. (March 31.)
The Killers (1964): This loosely refocused remake of Robert Siodmak’s and Mark Hellinger’s classic 1946 take-off from Ernest Hemingway’s short story in the Nick Adam series shifts the plot interest from Burt Lancaster’s victim, Edmond O’Brien’s insurance detective, and Ava Gardner’s femme fatale to the killers themselves played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager who wonder why their victim (John Cassavetes) seemed so resigned to his fate. Ronald Reagan in his last movie role played his first villain as the gangster chief played originally by Albert Dekker. Reagan did get to slap Angie Dickinson, though not convincingly. The Lineup (1958): Little gem of a drug movie with Eli Wallach brilliant as a heatless hit man, and last-line-seeking Robert Keith as his poetic wheel man. One of the earliest uses of San Francisco as a crime locale. (March 31-April 1.)
Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Remarkably austere and efficient account of Eastwood’s enactment of a 1962 escape from legendary prison. Danny Glover made his screen debut here. Siegel seems to have been inspired by Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956). The Shootist (1976): Less a twilight western than a midnight western with legendary gunfighter John Wayne being given a medical death sentence by doc James Stewart, and deciding to spend his last days with landlady Lauren Bacall and her son Ron Howard. But a young punk looking for a reputation ensures Wayne’s end will not be a quiet one. (April 2-3.)
The Duel at Silver Creek (1952): Audie Murphy’s “The Silver Kid” teams up with Stephen McNally’s “Lightening” Tyrone for showdowns with “Rat Face,” “Johnny Sombrero,” and Lee Marvin’s “Tinhorn” Burgess, while in back to back scenes, Faith Domergue strangles and seduces with equal aplomb. China Venture (1953): China coast where Captain Edmond O’Brien leads a patrol, including Japanese speaking Barry Sullivan and nurse Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister so memorable in Fritz Lang’s 1953 The Big Heat 1953), to bring in an ailing Japanese agent and find out his big secret. Shot in an incredible studio-created jungle nearly washed away by torrential studio downpours. (April 4.)
Madigan (1968): One of Siegel’s most emotionally powerful policiers as by-the-book-police commissioner Henry Fonda gives free-wheeling cop Richard Widmark and partner Harry Guardino just 72 hours to recapture hyper-homicidal Steve Ihnat after letting him escape with Widmark’s gun. Coogan’s Bluff (1968): Cowboy-hatted and booted Clint Eastwood virtually rides into 60s New York City to pick up captured fugitive Don Stroud only to find his Wild West tactics angering local police lieutenant Lee J. Cobb and big-hearted social worker Susan Clark. (April 5-6 .)
Dirty Harry (1971): “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel Lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?” snarls Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum-wielding Harry Callahan of a recumbent crook, after breaking up a bank robbery attempt in between munches of his hot god luncheon. Callahan has more trouble with loony “Scorpio Killer” Andy Robinson, who winds up holding a busload of hostages because Callahan has ignored the Miranda Warning in his previous arrest of the Scorpio Killer, and has been handcuffed by a lily-livered Mayor (John Vernon) and a city administration that seems to be controlled by the American Civil Liberties Union. For his heavy-handedness, Callahan was termed a “Fascist” by some critics. Today he would be lionized for his War on Terror. (April 7-13.)