Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Thank You For Smoking

Let me first start by saying that I have pretty much only had one day off between posting my first commentary and writing this one, so I chose this film specifically because I wanted to watch something relatively light-hearted.

First things first, we sympathize with Nick Naylor for many reasons but the most important and most prevalent is this: we always sympathize with the main character. Because the film follows his perspective, we might not like him but we damn well understand and sympathize with him. Obviously, we care about the tobacco lobbyists in this film because the film follows Nick. The film introduces Nick by showing him on a talk show that seems similar to Jerry Springer or Maury. Due to this set up we cannot help but expect something emotional and dramatic to happen. By having Nick blow his competition out of the water on the show right after his voice-over explanation of his job, we are given the sense that Nick is like a walking train wreck: we don’t always want to look because we don’t agree with him, but we can’t look away.

By the way, the film pulls a fast one on us in the opening sequence. You know how Nick fast-talks his way out of the screwed up situation on the show? This scene, along with the voice-overs filled with short shots and fast talking, force us as viewers to quickly take in what we have just observed and move on, rather than try to mentally fight back against what we are being told. Yeah, we know tobacco lobbying is terrible, but we go along with it because the film doesn’t give us time to argue back in our minds, much like Nick doesn’t give Ron Goode time to argue back on the television show.

However, Nick is not the only character that we get manipulated into caring about. When Nick goes to meet The Captain, we respect him because of Nick’s voiceover about his accomplishments and the setting. The lighting is just bright enough to cast a warm, yellow glow on The Captain’s face, he is surrounded by rich deep reds and browns, and he is drinking a mint julep while speaking kindly and politely to (and about)Nick. This setting and the interaction that occurs in this scene just ooze with class. Even though we are told that this man started the agency that Nick works for (a company specifically designed to lobby for Big Tobacco), we can’t help but respect him.

Pictured: Class.

On the other hand, the very next scene introduces Senator Finistirre. We are shown his name (Ortolan Finistirre, super awkward), then his desk (cluttered with his maple syrup collection) followed by the giant Vermont Cheese sign over his desk.  The camera cuts to the Senators feet, showing him wearing Birkenstocks with socks and tapping his feet against his chair (again: awkward). If this weren’t enough to convince us that Senator Finistirre is a complete tool, he then goes on to give Ron Goode shit for not being able to argue back to Nick and blames part of the problem on the cancer patient teenager not being helpless enough. While all of this alone tells us a great deal about the character, it is important to note that not only is he cheesy, ridiculous, and douche-bag to boot, but he is in direct contrast with the classy scenery and attitude we just witnessed with The Captain, practically forcing us to give him less respect.

Not Pictured: Class.

Speaking of respect, this film does something very interesting with the tobacco lobby characters: you sympathize with them, but you don’t completely respect them. Despite the fact that you are following the tobacco lobby throughout this film, you never quite lose sight of what they are truly after. The most noticeable way this is done is through Nick, of course. For instance, we come to sympathize with Nick as a character, but we cannot fully respect him due to the things he does and says (like how he addresses Joey’s class in the beginning of the film).  There are also moments where the tobacco lobby characters say things that make us jump back for a moment, reminding us that these are people we probably shouldn’t be dealing with (like Nick saying the anti-Tobacco agencies want the cancer-ridden teenager to die). This may not seem too important, but without reminding us of what these men can do, we would be at risk of forgetting that we are supposed to sympathize with these men as people but hate what they do for a living.

I must say, I really love the dialogue in this film. While I cannot say that the dialogue is realistic, it is intriguing, entertaining, and over the top (in a good way, if that makes sense). Because this movie is primarily about Nick and how he talks his way out of almost everything, there are dozens of memorable lines from this film. Example: “Like you always said: if you want an easy job go work for the Red Cross”. You can tell the writing was well done when you can finish watching a movie and remember at least a fourth of the dialogue. Also, I feel it is important to note the strength of the voice-over use in this film. Not many films can pull off voice-over narration without making the audience want to strangle themselves, but Thank You For Smoking actually has a pretty good balance. Most of this is because not all of the voice-over dialogue is explanation (the kind that makes us want to strangle ourselves, as noted above), but rather continuation of the current conversation spoken over relevant imagery. While voice-overs tend to tell more than show, using the voice-overs in this way allows the film to show rather than tell.

However, in the same realm of character development and dialogue, there is one small thing that I keep questioning, and that is the character of Joey. While it is great that Nick is given a son to further the audience’s willingness to sympathize with him, Joey’s character seems slightly off. For instance, in the beginning of the film Nick has to explain to Joey that for his essay, he can pretty much say anything he wants because the question is so open-ended that as long as he argues his point affectively, he can’t be wrong. If this is just now being explained to him, why is it that only a few scenes later he is able to masterfully guilt-trip his mother into letting him go to California by arguing that she is using him as a pawn to get back at Nick? If Joey had just learned about effective argument, I highly doubt he would have been able to pull this off, especially to the extent that he perfected his argument in the scene. This is especially suspicious because Nick then gives Joey another lecture on how to effectively argue while they are in California (the ice cream scene). If Joey understands argument well enough to guilt trip his mother, why doesn’t he understand the idea that he doesn’t have to prove himself right, just prove his opponent wrong? Essentially, that’s what he did with his mother, as he has no proof that his accusations are accurate. Nick has been arguing with people for his career for years, so it is acceptable to have Nick spout these perfect one-liners, but to have Joey spout perfectly formed arguments while barely understanding the concept of what he is doing just seems overly cheesy, even for a movie like this.

Otherwise this film was funny (as it should be, considering it is a comedy) and enjoyable. It was well put together and the writing was excellent.

Favorite Scene: