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