“Guys, guys, hold on now – I think it sucks too.”
Oh boy, have I been waiting a long time for this one. Ever since that first screening at the Toronto Film Festival where the largely canned audience (telltale sign: rapturous applause for the costume designer during the opening credits) birthed this Omen-level abomination into the public consciousness, I’ve been biding my time and sharpening my knives, waiting for this puppy to hit screens. Already the beneficiary of two publicity bumps unrelated to the substance of the film itself—the first for a silly over-covered acquisitions tug-of-war in Toronto (Paramount Classics: “But we, like, so totally pinky-swore on it, how could it get sold to Fox Searchlight, even though they have a signed deal and offered more money?!?”), the second for the Katie Holmes sex sequence which was inexplicably absent from its screenings at Sundance (director Jason Reitman: “Holy crap, I thought, like, Tom Cruise flew in on a spaceship with his army of Thetans and stole it, OMG!!! [Wink, wink]”)—chances are you’ve probably heard of this thing in some arena or another, and might already be planning to shell out for a ticket. So, if filmenthusiast’s Art School Confidential sneak preview was early critical CPR, then consider this an overt attempt at a little bit of old-fashioned well poisoning.
It’s unfortunate that Thank You For Smoking is so righteously bad as it is so fully centered around the terrific, underappreciated actor Aaron Eckhart, whose utter conviction and strong chin almost keep things together. Almost, but the satire Reitman’s enmeshed him isn’t nearly as sharp it thinks it is. It’s the 13 year-old spoiled-teen variety: smug, hot-headed, unfocused, and willing to lash out in every direction to score a cheap, self-satisfying point. As Nick Naylor (LOL—right?), Eckhart dances through a series of increasingly icky circumstances in which the audience is asked to question the limits of a very vaguely outlined “personal responsibility,” arriving at the end of its barely-there narrative with some equally ill-defined libertarian stance that he, and the movie, are unsure whether to believe in. At least, I think. See, we find in first-timer Reitman a filmmaker more aware of the subtle shades of light in a room than subtle shades of character—Thank You For Smoking is a very nice looking movie, but smart interiors don’t add up to cinema. By sacrificing a real point of view for bug-spray finger-pointing (a zero-sum game if ever there was one) Smoking continually cuts itself off at the knees. This could, and should have been the movie about the middle-class mother who makes bombs to pay her bills that Why We Fight was too squeamish to be. All we learn here is (gasp) that everyone’s a hypocrite. Great, can I go back to Manderlay now?
So, why get so upset about yet another dumb product of Indiewood? I guess I’m just tired of it all, tired in advance of all the reviews that will praise the film’s “wit” and “insight;” tired in advance of the Reitman profiles which will showcase his calculatedly modest “Aw shucks, I’m just lucky to be here” pose (see: his blog, also note: stupid hat); and tired in advance of its high per-screen average which will allow this thing to expand like a cancer to theatres across the country and force better movies to fall by the wayside. I’m also tired of ostensibly comedic works where the humor comes with a glint of malice in its eyes directed squarely at the poor sobs who bought the tickets—try and find a hint of audience-directed sadism in something like Just Friends and you won’t, because it’s not there. That’s what we here at Reverse Shot like to call an honest movie. Jason’s father’s (Ivan, of course) films may check in at various points on the scale of cinematic stupidity (Kindergarten Cop gets its own section), but they’re never canny, never trying to pull a fast one. Re-watching Twins a few years ago, I was struck by two things: first, that it just doesn’t play as well as it did when I was ten, and second, that for a late ‘80s movie, the thing is really, genuinely good-natured. Ivan may be packaging and selling, but something about its straightforwardness registered as quaint and approached charming. If Thank You For Smoking is any indication of the filmmaker Jason Reitman will be, we’ve got true huckster on our hands—all broad smiles masking contempt. Given the choice, I’d advise you to stay home and rent Dave. And, in this season of movie drought, if you do find yourself at a theatre that happens to be playing both Smoking and Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks, choose the latter instead—at least I can guarantee that you’ll get what you paid for.