The Barenaked Archives: Thank You For Smoking

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Thank You For Smoking posterIt takes a special type of movie to pit its audience against the anti-smoking brigade (the “good” guys) and make them like it. Somehow, Thank You for Smoking manages to pull it off.

It’s a chance to see (and laugh at) the hypocrisy on every side of the great smoking debate, from the big tobacco companies to the militantly anti-cigarette politicians and nonprofit groups, and teaches you to appreciate the finer points of arguing.

Lesson number one: You don’t necessarily have to be right; you just have to prove the other person wrong. Because you’re not convincing your opponent; you’re convincing your audience.

We should hate Nick Naylor, our main character in this satire. We really should. He’s the lobbyist for one of the most hated corporations in America. The man’s job is to make cigarettes, which are clinically proven to cause all sorts of nasty life-threatening diseases, look good so that the American public will keep buying them. He says flat out that he has flexible morals, and that he’s almost universally hated. We should be on that bandwagon.

But not only do we not hate Nick Naylor, we’re actually rooting for him to succeed against kidnappers, anti-cigarette groups, a hot reporter, and a determined senator. Because let’s face it, Thank You for Smoking is all about spin, and Nick Naylor is the best spin doctor in the whole movie. He’ll tell you so himself.

Aaron Eckhart turns in a wonderful performance as Naylor, sympathetic and detestable at the same time. He’s not perfect, but he’s not so devoid of morals that he’s inhuman. It’s nigh impossible to tell when he’s saying what he really believes, or if he’s just b.s.ing for the benefit of his audience.

Except, perhaps, when he’s talking to his son Joey (Cameron Bright). There you get the sense that he’s trying to be a good, honest father and a role model. Nick never hides what he does from Joey, and he doesn’t try to make himself out to be a saint. They could’ve had an obvious “My son hates my job, I’m so ashamed, what am I to do?” subplot, but they avoid that.

(Side note: Holy cow, I want Cameron Bright’s agent. I swear this kid has been in every other movie to come out this year. Running Scared, Ultraviolet, this, and X-men: The Last Stand. That’s more movies in five months than most people do in a year. He’s like the male version of Dakota Fanning.)

There’s also a fantastic supporting cast, with Maria Bello and David Koechner as the lobbyists for the alcohol and firearms industries, respectively; Katie Holmes as the reporter trying to get Nick’s story; J.K. Simmons as B.R., Nick’s jerk of a boss; Rob Lowe as a powerful Hollywood agent and spin doctor equal to Nick’s talents; Adam Brody as Lowe’s assistant and spin-doctor-in-training; Robert Duvall as the Captain, the last old-school tobacco baron; and William H. Macy as Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre (how did they come up with that name?), who’s determined to get a poison label posted on every pack of cigarettes.

Also, the movie is funny. What you see in the trailer is just a taste of the films’ sharp, quick-witted humor. Whether you’re watching Nick back a self-righteous anti-smoking activist into a corner or the lobbyists comparing stories to see who’s more hated, it doesn’t cut anyone a break.

Thank You for Smoking is one movie that everyone, smoker and nonsmoker alike, needs to make time to see. This is how satires should be made (I’m looking at you, American Dreamz.)

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