April 14th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Hurray for the "Merchants of Death!"

I almost forgot that the movie Thank You for Smoking was coming to local theaters last week; thank Prime that becka_kitty reminded me. We went to see it Thursday afternoon, and oh my god am I glad that we did. I expected to like this movie from the moment I saw the trailer, because I like a lot of the supporting cast, many of whom seemed perfect for their roles. Rob Lowe is in it, and as you can see from the trailer he's playing a Hollywood talent agent as basically the evil opposite of the character he played on The West Wing. William Macy plays a moderately obnoxious, seriously twitchy Congressman, and he plays those kinds of up-tight parts to a tee. Robert Duvall lights up the screen in a brief couple of cameos as a kind, elderly, and widely feared tobacco company CEO, and when is he not fun to watch at his craft? And hey, for the most part I like movies about politics; heck, I even almost liked Bulworth.

What I did not expect, though, was to like this movie as much as I did. I saw this thing 10 hours ago, and I still keep breaking out in giggles over it. I have a short list, in my head, of films whose dialog just absolutely crackles with non-stop wit and intelligence. The Thin Man. The Princess Bride. Ghost Busters. Real Genius. Clue. And now this movie, which really does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. It's just that well written. It's also at least as well acted as those classic comedies. In addition to the secondary characters above, Aaron Eckhart, whom I'd never seen before, just completely owns the screen, effortlessly upstaging almost everybody in the movie the exact same way that a young Val Kilmer stole every scene in Real Genius. Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, the lead lobbyist for the tobacco institute, nominally a vice president at the Institute for Tobacco Studies, and you would expect a movie like this, hyped the way that this movie is, to be completely cruel to the lobbying industry. And it is, but (and here's the part that I'm pleasantly surprised by) no more than is fair. Nick at one point compares what he does to being a lawyer for a guy that you know is guilty, but you also know that in America even a guilty murderer is entitled to an all-out defense. But that's not what motivates him. He thinks that he's in it for the money, but no that's not really true either. By the end of the movie he realizes just why he's in it ... and to say more would be to give away the ending. But the ending that it does not have glued onto it is "smoking = bad, government = good, corporations = bad, non-profits = good, lobbyists = bad, journalists = good, adults = bad, kids = good" that I was afraid, from the trailer, it would end up with. No, on the contrary -- everybody in this movie comes off as no better than human, and very few of them as much worse. Not even Nick.

It's also just an amazing piece of film-making. The sound-track sizzles all the way through, an alternating mix of cowboy blues and smoking-hot (pun intended) jazz. Visually, it uses every trick of editing and film-making that nearly all producers and editors are too lazy to use ... you could enjoy the heck out of this film with the sound completely off, just for the smooth and glib and funny and beautiful look of the film. They need all those tricks, too, because (big film no-no) Nick narrates the film, as well. It's told in hindsight, by the guy he's become at the end of the film. But to keep the audience alive and laughing their backsides off during those narratives, it edits in everything from 50s Disney science-movie style graphics to rock-video style framing and film-speed trickery, much of it driven by a subtle techno sound, all of which perfectly fits the way that Nick thinks ... and he's not cutting himself any breaks, not the breaks that he gives his clients, or else he wouldn't so cheerfully label himself and his two best friends (his counterparts for the alcohol and firearms industries) as the Merchants of Death.
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