' Cinema Romantico: Mr. Naylor Goes to Washington

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mr. Naylor Goes to Washington

It’s always been my impression that satires run out of steam thanks to a lack of story or become so unrelenting in their one-sidedness they fall to pieces. I think the problem is that they just don’t know how to be movies. But now along comes “Thank You For Not Smoking” which bucks the satire trend and works.

It works as a satire because it doesn’t spend its entire time railing against the wiles of cigarettes. It focuses solely on telling the story of Nick Naylor (played wonderfully by Aaron Eckhart who seems to be one of the great chameleon actors of current cinema) and thus becomes a satire of one man whose job is to protect those who wish to smoke and those who profit from those who wish to smoke. It’s funny because it doesn’t just sit back and take cheap shots. The humor comes from the characters. An example: The M.O.D. (Merchants of Death – namely the 3 head lobbyists for Tobacco, Firearms and Alcohol) Squad is having lunch and Naylor brags that liquor and guns come nowhere near to killing the number of people that tobacco does in a year. But the gun and liquor lobbyists do not rest until Naylor admits that all three are death-causing equals. This, of course, is a backhanded way of showing the evil of all three vices but it’s hilarious because it’s a conversation these three characters would undoubtedly have.

It presents Naylor as a guy who – as he puts it – “talks” for a living. Early on he discredits a grade school girl who advises her mom says cigarettes kill by pointing out her mom isn’t a doctor. He suggests to his powers-that-be they show more people in movies smoking because people will want to smoke if they see movie stars doing it. This leads to an uproarious sequence with Naylor and a top Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe). The agent suggests they show Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones smoking in an upcoming movie set in space. But Naylor points out they would just explode in a non-oxygen environment. Not to worry, says the agent. They’ll fix it by changing one line of dialogue. “Thank God we invented the…” I have no doubt this type of thing happens every single day in offices all over Hollywood.

It’s interesting because in technical terms Naylor is an anti-hero. He should be the guy you love to hate. But the movie makes sure he is more than just a sleek villain. It establishes the relationship with his son as being key. It forgoes the obvious arc of having Naylor neglect his son in the beginning only to change into a better father at the end. It’s more complex than that. The son really wants to understand who his father is and what he does and the father makes an effort to include his son in his life.

In a key sequence Naylor is required to deliver hush money to one of the original Marlboro Men (Sam Elliot, in a perfect piece of casting) who is suffering from lung cancer and speaking out on the dangers of cigarettes. Naylor clearly feels some guilt about having to do this but when it comes time to “talk” to take care of the problem he does it and does it well.

At the end, Naylor has his "Jimmy Stewart moment" and comes face to face with his nemesis – Senator Finistirre (who gets the film's funniest line) – who has called a congressional hearing to propose that all cigarette packs contain a skull & crossbones instead of a written warning label to let consumers know just how dangerous the product is. It is up to Naylor to prevent this from happening – though whether he does or not isn’t necessarily the most important point. In the conclusion of his testimony, Senator Finistirre asks Naylor whether he will buy a pack of cigarettes for his son on his 18th birthday. Naylor’s response is perfect and rings absolutely true.

The film is biting and funny but it does most satires one better than that – it gives us an actual character, flaws and all. It's not a crusade - it's a story. I don’t necessarily want to call it great, but “Thank You For Not Smoking” is certainly the first very good movie of 2006.

1 comment:

John the Butcher said...

You called it "Thank you for Not Smoking." I point out at and laugh at your mistakke.