September 12th, 2006


Thank You For Smoking

I went and saw Thank You for Smoking because I heard that it was a pro-smoking film. It wasn't, but I enjoyed it still.

I am not a smoker, but I've dated a smoker, had friends who smoke, and once smoked an assignment. The student had written along the side of each cigarette a little statement, something like, 'You're Not Dead Yet' and 'Your Addiction is Not Sated', and I smoked it, watching the words disintegrate as I got a fix. My father died from smoking related cancer when I was young, and that has ensured that I've no interest in taking up the habit (my sister, however, has that base covered). And with all this, I can honestly say that I just don't care if people smoke. My complete disinterest in smoking or not smoking even goes as far as my not caring about second hand smoke and if pregnant women light up and puff away for two. The second is simply a matter of personal responsibility: if you want to smoke while your pregnant, your choice, your kid. Plenty of fucked up kids get born each year without the aid of cigarettes. As for second hand smoke, what do I care? If I don't like it, I'll just not go to a pub, bar, whatever. If I'm sitting next to a smoker and it pisses me off, I'll just say, "That's giving me the shits," in the same way I'll tell a friend that the music in his/her car is irritating.

This sort of life philosophy regarding cigarettes is, I feel like adding, one that I carry across to drugs, alcohol and sexuality. I couldn't care less. Everyone's got a right to do as they wish. Therefor, it irritates me when people carry on and on about how cigarettes are bad, and how they should be banned in bars, just as how the negative attitudes to drugs and sexuality also annoy me. I don't actually run into many negative attitudes for alcohol, now that I think about it, but drink, don't drink, what do I care?

So I was up for a film that was pro smoking. I even went with J, who used to work on the Quit Line here in Australia, because... well, I like going to films with people. The fact that he worked on the Quit Line has nothing to do with it. His boyfriend, M, came along too. He used to smoke. That has about as much relevance to this entry as it does everything else I've mentioned so far.

So, the film:

Thank You for Smoking is the story of Nick Taylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, and whose job it is to be public face of Big Tobacco in the States. Basically, it is his job to go out and spin the bad news and make it so that people can buy cigarettes as they please. He has a wife who has remarried, and a son who he can't connect with, and he ends up fucking Katie Holmes, which is just about the list of his problems in the film. Mostly, he spends his time trying to convince people that there is no proof that smoking is bad for you, and that people have a right to go and buy what they want, and make that decision for themselves, which is all well and good.

There isn't much to say about Thank You for Smoking beyond that, however. It's funny, but it doesn't really take the knife out to become a fulfilling satire. It appears to want to attack political correctness, and it appears to want to make a bold statement about how the ability to make a personal choice regarding an instance is important, but it never quite gets there. The problem is that the film gets caught up in its character of Naylor, who, while played with a slick ease by Eckhart, is a rather vacuous individual who, though he smokes, is never seen in the film actually smoking. (It is a curiously smoke free environment within the film, actually--the only confessed smoker we meet is Sam Shepard, the ex-Marlboro Man, who is now dying from lung cancer. He stands head and shoulders above everyone else when we imagine a 'Smoker' and is just one of the things that undermine the film's attempt to present smoking in a positive fashion.) Naylor holds an empty packet of cigarettes, once, which can be read to symbolise the emptiness of his personal life, and perhaps even the emptiness that he holds towards his job, for while he does defend Big Tobacco, there's nothing, outside his rationalisations about freedom of choice, to suggest that what he is doing has any importance for him. He might as well be the spin doctor for the Bush Administration, or the BBC, or me. Defending smoking is just a gig, which is why the end of the film is not surprising.

Director Jason Reitman has put together a slick little film, but the problem is, a few hours after seeing it, you're not left with any real opinion about it. Was it good? Sure. Everything worked in it. Did it do anything interesting? Well, no. It doesn't defend smoking because, as Naylor himself says after an agonising pause in the climax of the film, we all know smoking is bad for us. We all believe that. In the end, the film believes this, and since Reitman neither mounts a defense for smoking in his sunny, white, corporate world, and neither forms an interesting or convincing argument about the importance of individual choice, you're left with a few gags, a few jokes, and what is, in the end, a film with its sentimental heart buried in the relationship that Naylor has with his son.
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