Precious Bodily Fluids

Thank You For Smoking

Friends with "Cancer-Boy"

Friends with "Cancer-Boy"

While in Bookshop Santa Cruz the other day, I noticed a placard with the following quotation from Oscar Wilde (which captures the spirit of the line if not the exact words): “A book that isn’t worth re-reading multiple times isn’t worth reading at all.” And while we should take care not to embrace Wilde’s philosophy of life wholeheartedly, on matters literary he tends to be correct. There are some people who never care to read a book a second time or watch a film twice or more; we (or at least the editorial “we”) will never understand them. This must be one of the only points on which C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde would have shaken hands in agreement. (See Lewis’ excellent An Experiment in Criticism.)

Smoking2

This all being the case, “we” are now wondering as to the previously endorsed film Thank You For Smoking. It has so much going for it, but some of its chic-est features are those that offer fewer and fewer returns upon return viewings. It was recently mentioned here that a character playing a screenwriting lecturer within the film Adaptation. insisted that voiceover narration is simply lazy and should never be done. Charlie Kaufman clearly disagrees, and so must we, since both that film and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind used voiceover effectively. So did Fight Club, with Edward Norton’s crackly voice sarcastically understating everything from his Ikea obsession to pummeling the teeth out of another person. The Kaufman films can pull off voiceover on account of the introverted insecurity of their narrators; they don’t pretend to be more suave inside their own heads than their personae exude. Fight Club, on the other hand, walks a tightrope, with Norton’s character giving that constant wink to the audience while somehow putting all of his own pathetic weaknesses right out there.

Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking voices-over the narrative without ever letting his guard down, without ever voluntarily getting vulnerable with the audience. At the low point in his career, his voiceover nearly cuts out completely (maybe more than nearly). He picks up the microphone again once he’s employed his epiphanic strategy for getting back in the game. (Another problem here is that his plan to expose the female reporter’s tryst with him and in so doing discredit her claims against him works way better than it should. It’s not that ingenious, and her reaction to viewing his news conference renders a resourceful, though simple-minded, reporter yet another victim of the untouchable Nick Naylor.) When Naylor summarizes himself at the film’s end (through voiceover, naturally), he says that what he does is “talk.” It’s fitting and appropriate for him to narrate his story, then, since talking is his gift and his most effective weapon to wield power. And perhaps it’s appropriate that his talking cuts out when he’s been temporarily beaten. But this gives the audience the feeling that Nick Naylor is holding his tongue so as to fool not only his enemies within the film but his viewers as well. Problem is, the viewers get to see him at his low points and during touching moments with his son; the hint that Naylor does have a heart is veiled behind his jabber, to the detriment of the film. If this had simply been a heist movie, a plot-driven thriller about the seamy underworld of tobacco lobbyists, none of this would matter. But since the film presents itself as driven by a single character, a character who appears in nearly every scene and is the reason why we’re watching the film, a more consistent or honest character is in order – or at least a more honest film. By the end, the film itself raises Naylor back up to the status of untouchable pro; he may be mortal, but only just barely. Kaufman’s films end with characters just as human as when they began, though maybe less fractured. Even Fight Club‘s finale has Norton’s character saying, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”

"Nobody knows you..."

"Nobody knows you..."

And could Reitman’s intro montage imitation of Wes Anderson BE any more overt? Observe:

Smoking4Smoking5Smoking6Smoking7

Smoking8

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This entry was published on June 25, 2009 at 8:10 am. It’s filed under 2000s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Thank You For Smoking

  1. yearzerowriters on said:

    I saw the film two years ago, but can’t remember much…

    I do remember that it seemed flash though…spearheaded by Eckhart, flasher than flash. I agree that a narrator who shows nothing of himself is uninteresting. In fact, when everything works out too perfectly then it becomes a fantasy. Or a satire, ha!

    And the cancer boy talk show scene? Lucky that the other speaker was completely useless…did he walk onto that show with amnesia? Did he not know Eckhart would use that kind of strategy? I can’t believe it, although it was funny.

    But I know, I know…it’s a satire…it’s supposed to be that way. But then again, they don’t seem to satirise Eckhart, do they? Which means it’s a bit lopsided.

    Oli

  2. I agree with you in that this film isn’t meant for multiple viewing. Further, Eckhart’s character is barely human – that, i believe, is a terrific observation. But for those ‘sensitive’ moments, either with his precocious son, or his nicotine-tarred body, he wouldn’t have been vulnerable at all as a normal person is.

    Nonetheless, I think it is a bit unfair to draw comparisons between this movie with the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Fight Club – it would be like comparing a solid entertainer like Goran Ivanisevic with a consummate artiste like Pete Sampras. You knew Ivanisevic’s array of aces could be whole lotta fun, but you also knew he could never emulate the sheer brilliance of Sampras – in fact we would be doing disservice to Sampras if we started comparing Goran with him.

    I feel, as a standalone movie, Thank You for Smoking is a damn entertaining flick – its dry humour bordering on sarcasm and even a bit of self-parody, makes this really fun to watch, and even chat with friends (over a few puffs, perhaps). But, as you rightly pointed out at the very outset, its also the kind of movie one would revisit only for old times’ sake, and not because of its artistic merit. As for Eternal Sunshine & Fight Club are concerned, they’d invite a different kind of critical approach and deconstruction altogether.

  3. You may be right about that. I think I found TYFS more enjoyable before seeing Juno, actually. That’s when it became more apparent that its maker, Jason Reitman, was cheating in his filmmaking style. The tone of TYFS helps us forgive its flaws, but it hints at offering more. Juno confirms the hint, taking what could have been a cute comedy and shellacking it with a pretentious shell. Crack through it and you see that there isn’t much inside, especially compared to stuff like Eternal Sunshine and Fight Club. So I agree with you, but I’m not sure that Reitman does. I think he wants his stuff to be on par with those other, better films.

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