Is it about the dangers of cigarettes? The state of American politics? Is it meant to amuse us or provoke us? Nobody seems to know what, exactly, "Thank You for Smoking" is. Those involved with the indie film sensation, however, seem to agree on one thing: It's the latest in a long line of hilariously serious movie satires.
"I play Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist who peddles cigarettes to children and adults alike — but with charm," said Aaron Eckhart ("Erin Brockovich") as he explained the movie in which he appears alongside a cast including Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall and Adam Brody. "The movie is really about this guy who loves to talk and loves to peddle. He could be peddling bicycles; he could be peddling couches. Whatever it is, he just loves to do it."
Somehow "yuppie antichrist" Naylor ends up the hero in the twisted world of "Smoking," going toe-to-toe with the benevolent, inadvertent villain played by William H. Macy. As the filmmaking debut of 28-year-old Jason Reitman unfolds, the pursuit of Macy's tree-hugging senator gets turned on its head amidst an onslaught of slams against Hollywood, Washington and the potent weaponry they both shamelessly employ.
"It's not about smoking, it's about spin," said Macy, holding a cigarette in his hand for effect. "We're able to look at people who spin the truth and laugh at them. It's just uproarious. A film about the military-industrial complex, I don't think, would be nearly as funny."
In 1999 Al Pacino and Russell Crowe starred in "The Insider," an intense exploration of the "Big Tobacco" companies that greet their customers with a sincere smile while simultaneously spinning the data that suggests they're killing consumers. The drama was nominated for several Oscars but failed to make back even half of its budget. The cast of "Smoking" hopes that its commentary proves more palatable.
"Anytime people are laughing, it's like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," insisted Rob Lowe, who plays a soulless yet spiritual Hollywood agent in the film. "To me, ['Smoking'] is about taking personal responsibility. You want to go out and kill yourself? God bless you! The government can't help you; your mommy can't help you, people. You need to take responsibility for your own life.
"The march of PC is so out of control in this country," Lowe added. "This movie tweaks that."
Three different actors from the same movie, three different interpretations of what it's about — and none of them mention the subject of smoking. In fact, there isn't a single scene in the movie that shows a person smoking a cigarette. Could it be that audiences are finally receiving a smart, funny film that encourages them to read between the lines?
"You have to say these words that are crazy, and yet do it with a smile on your face and have the audience like you," Eckhart said of the challenges of playing his character. "At one point, I'm doing a talk show with a kid who's dying of cancer, and he's going through chemotherapy and the whole thing, and I spin it so the anti-smoking people are the bad guys and I'm the good guy, and I'm this guy's best friend. I mean, it's whacked out."
It would be even more whacked out if "Smoking" became the latest in a tradition of satirical movies whose punch lines became true. "Network" (1976), for example, was an Oscar-winning satire that mocked things like reality television, Fox News and corporate synergy nearly three decades before they existed.
"I watch it twice a year because it is my favorite movie of all time," Lowe said. "Everything has happened. Everything they said about television happened."
For decades, laugh-while-we-cry movies like "Network" and the nuclear-war comedy "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) have been hailed as examples of film-satire perfection. ("You can mention our film with those other two anytime," grinned Macy, while Lowe added, "That's great company.") A quickly made 1997 comedy reinvented the standard for a new generation, coming frighteningly closer than ever to the reality it satirized.
"With 'Wag the Dog,' I remember two months later in Africa they were holding up signs in English reading 'Wag the Dog, Wag the Dog,' " Macy recalled of the film he starred in alongside Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. "It's because we had invaded."
Weeks after "Dog" portrayed the story of a scandal-ridden president distracting the world from his sexcapade by launching a war with a small, faraway opponent, the Clinton administration ordered air strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, just hours before the Monica Lewinsky scandal would lead to his impeachment.
"It's just trying to make you laugh," Lowe said of the satire tradition. "But it is smarter than the average bear."
The genre seems to be in fashion again, with the Mandy Moore/ Hugh Grant comedy "American Dreamz" taking on both the war in Iraq and "American Idol" next month, and the burger-and-fries indictment "Fast Food Nation" following on its heels. Clearly, such films want the audience to get outraged, get informed and leave the theater screaming for change. But, like the "Strangelove" moment when the president exclaims that there's no fighting in the War Room, or the "Wag" scene in which a young actress with a bag of chips is CGI'd into a fleeing refugee with a kitten, a satire like "Smoking" aims for the funny bone and the cerebrum at the same time.
"Laughing is important, and the fact that nobody should be taken seriously in this movie is important," Eckhart said. "You have to skip on top of the water. You can't let [satire] sink. If it sinks, you're dead. If people think this is a drama, you're dead."
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