Thursday, April 13, 2006
Thank You For Reading
Here's another not-quite-insightful not-quite movie review.
Today's flick: the comedy Thank You for Smoking. It was either that or Inside Man or an encore performance of Ice Age 2. Actually, this seems like a happy roster from which to choose, but Smoking had intrigued me in concept for quite a while, so it won out.
For any not familiar with the basic plot, Nick Naylor (played very convincingly by Aaron Eckhart) is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, and the movie follows him around as he tries to do well by his young son while remaining true to his can't-not-spin character. Along the way we meet a busload of grotesques, from his fellow vice industry lobbyists with whom he meets weekly for lunch (calling themselves "The MOD Squad" for Merchants Of Death) while they compete against each other to see whose industry is leaving the greatest tornado trail of death and mayhem in its wake, to the comically soulless executives of Big Tobacco (headed by the versatile J.K. Simmons, of Dr. Emil Skoda on Law & Order fame), to a former Marlboro Man (played by the crusty Sam Elliot) who is dying of lung cancer, to a newspaper reporter who happily sleeps with our protagonist (can he be a protagonist?) before smearing him in a front page story.
Actually (forgive me while I make a little diversion), this reporter is played without judgment by Katie Holmes, and her performance here along with the preview of Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise make me wonder if either actor is capable of generating a performance with any chance to rise above their now-laughable tabloid avatar. God, having Tom Cruise in my big dollar action movie would seem now like a ruinous executive decision! For my part I can no longer imagine going to see any Tom Cruise movie, with him having so brutally scrubbed off his star patina. Like John Travolta trying to smoke, where you can practically see his lips move as he asks his god's forgiveness after each puff, Katie Holmes in this movie seems unable to carry her love scene, at least to my mind (not that the scene amounts to much). But maybe she sucked before she met him and got mired in his nut-case quicksand.
Anyway. It would be expected and easy to paint Naylor in the broadest of strokes, but he actually turns out to be the most nuanced character in the film. Everyone else around him save for his son and his ex-wife seems like a caricature of a real person, and the triumph of his character and of the movie is to make us believe and sympathize with a guy with an inescapably reprehensible job. When it's something intrinsic to his character that makes him so good at his job, it is difficult not to hold the messenger in the same contempt as his message. But he ends up maneuvering so as NOT to poison everything he touches, and his character might even prove to be a good dad and a respectable role model. That's the writer's victory, aided by the actor's performance, of course, that what seems predestined to be a man swirling down the toilet bowl turns out so differently. You may not like the guy, but he's hard to hate.
The movie has a breezy, hip feel about it, the music and voiceovers giving it at times a quasi-documentary flavor. No great conclusions are reached about smoking or anything else, and we don't feel preached to--or rather, we get preached to from all sides about equally. And the key performances are fun to watch.