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Don’t worry, cancer boy: Eckhart (r) in Thank You for Smoking.

Death Head, Grinning

By Laura Leon

Thank You for Smoking

Directed by Jason Reitman

Thank You For Smoking, adapted from the Christopher Buckley novel, is a ceaselessly funny look at how fictional tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) does business. Beyond that, it just happens to be the most fully realized, consistently excellent movie of the past, oh, I don’t know how many years.

Screenwriter and director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman completely gets the rhythms of Buckley’s humor, which is essential to the movie’s energy. So, too, is Eckhart’s uncanny ability to completely embody a total heel and yet make him into a hero. His Nick is a guy who relishes the fact that he’s one of the few “truly despised” people in the world. Even in scenes in which Nick bonds with his son Joey (Cameron Bright), his essential scoundrelness remains intact. Eckhart is that rare actor who doesn’t seem to feel the need to reveal a little likeability or humility in creating the emotional makeup of a louse—and the movie is the better for it.

Naylor’s utter ease in dismissing public-health advocates and, especially, a crusading, Birkenstock-wearing U.S. senator named Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy), speak to an underlying theme that Americans hold near and dear—namely the freedom to choose, even if it’s selecting one’s preferred poison. With that working in his favor, Naylor is able to make gullible people believe that Big Tobacco really wants to educate teens about the dangers of smoking. In this way, Thank You for Smoking thoroughly slams how easily distracted our culture is.

Things go south for Naylor, at least temporarily, when paramour and killer reporter Heather Halloway (Katie Holmes, again looking way too young to play anything professional) reveals his many secrets in print. Without a job, and without the support of his fellow merchants of death (aka lobbyists for the alcohol and gun lobbies), Nick goes into a tailspin before Joey talks him out of it. Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. At times, one wonders how Thank You for Smoking will end. Will Reitman succumb to doing the “right” thing by having Naylor see the light, expose the evils of tobacco, and turn his considerable talents for the forces of good? Let’s just say that the filmmaker seems perfectly happy to let the audience enjoy a master of spin, without resorting to useless moralizations. “Michael Jordan plays basketball,” reasons Naylor. “Charles Manson kills people. I talk.” And how.

Novel Entertainment

Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

It’s tempting to refer to Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as one of those books more talked about than read, like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest. Only no one really talks about it.

The book, originally published in nine volumes between 1760 and 1770, made its author a celebrity but was not very well-received by critics. In fact, its unconventional, meandering, achronological structure and its self-referential archness drew a comment from Samuel Johnson—“Nothing odd will do long”—that is probably more widely known than the book itself. You may have heard the work acknowleged as an early forerunner of both stream-of-concsciousness writing and of postmodernism, if you run in those circles. But you’ve probably never heard it described as a story screaming for a big-screen adaptation. Understandably. So, it’s much to the credit of director Michael Winterbottom that the thing isn’t a shambling mess—or, rather, that it is an intentional and thoroughly entertaining shambling mess.

Rather than attempting an impossible direct adaptation, the filmmakers take a cue from Sterne’s prescient postmodernism by making a film about the filming of a movie based on Sterne’s novel. So, you get Steve Coogan playing Steve Coogan playing Tristram Shandy, and so on. And you get a fair amount of amusing period-piece comedy. But the real meat and mirth of the movie is the “behind the scenes” stuff, the gently scathing glances at the ego and commerce upon which all films, even quirky British send-ups, are built. The film feels like a cross between Truffaut’s Day for Night and This Is Spinal Tap—with tricorner hats.

Coogan’s unremitting dedication to protecting his role as the film’s lead against the perceived encroachment of fellow comedian Rob Brydon is both funny and pathetic, and therefore rings true. In fact, both actors do a fine job of remaining likeable even while convincingly portraying themselves as celebrity (or aspiring celebrity) actors, not the most likeable lot. The interactions of the great many people required to get a film to screen and the not-always subtle and not-always stable hierarchy in which those interactions take place are the real fun of the flick. Whether or not the film deals properly with Tristram Shandy may be disputed among even those responsible for it (the film is credited to the pseudonym Martin Hardy because screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce demanded that his name be removed). But as a lighthearted skewering of the film biz, it’s a hoot. You can always read the novel when you finish A la recherche du temps perdu.

—John Rodat

 


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