I see Barbara Stanwyck in the lion’s cage, arms flung wide in her evangelist’s robes, gleaming, defiant, a miracle woman sold on her own con. At her back stand the tenements of her youth and the realization that anyone living in them must be a sucker. Immediately before her looms God’s judgment, and a radio audience in the millions. She’s betting on salvation now, with nothing left to wager but her own flesh: the most conspicuously experienced chorus-girl body in all of movie history. There’s a huckster for you; there’s a risk-taking American entrepreneur.
Long ago, when full-time show people cranked out the movies and Frank Capra hadn’t gone all preachy himself, we got Stanwyck as our sexy bamboozler, out to gull the world lest she be gulled. Now we get Katie Holmes. A nice enough girl; she makes you want to ruffle her hair and give her a scratch behind the ears. How could she have been made the femme fatale in Thank You for Smoking, a film that otherwise casts its roles with the thoroughgoing precision, the literal-mindedness, of a rich kid filling gaps in his baseball card collection? See the low estate to which dishonest women have fallen! So sad is their decline in today’s amateurish, anarcho-capitalist Hollywood that Holmes doesn’t even get to play the liar-in-chief. She must yield in Thank You for Smoking to a slab of Mormon-bred masculinity: the precisely, predictably cast Aaron Eckhart.
His eyes like spacious skies, his hair an amber wave of grain, Eckhart first made himself known (and hated) as an incarnation of bullying, cocky Corporate America in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men. Though Eckhart has demonstrated a creditable range since then (being macho and sensitive in Erin Brockovich, or macho and suicidally stupid in Nurse Betty), his bland perfection in filling a suit has now made him the no-brain choice to play Nick Naylor, the cheerfully dishonest tobacco-industry spokesman who is the narrator, satirical butt and ultimate hero of Thank You for Smoking.
“You know the guy who can date any woman? I’m him on crack,” says Naylor in voiceover at the beginning, introducing himself with a characteristic sexual boast. Or is it a sexual metaphor? The occasion for this opening comment, far from being intimate, is a booking on a television talk show, where Naylor performs his favorite gyration–the truth-twist–in full view of an audience. So it goes throughout the film, as he directs his energy almost exclusively into the professional exertion of his jaw muscles. Even when Holmes gets him to stray, Naylor can’t shut up about work.
If Thank You for Smoking were the sort of film in which you can learn things about the characters, including truths they don’t know themselves, these details might have added up to something–a revelation, say, about the sexual economy of Mr. Corporate America. But as it’s been written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on Christopher Buckley’s comic novel, with the supervision of sixteen (count ’em) producers, co-producers, executive producers and associate producers, Thank You for Smoking scarcely seems able to recognize a character trait, let alone develop it. Witness the thin stuff turned out by our anarcho-capitalists, whose scenes (some of them captioned) serve mostly as illustrations for the voiceover, leaving you nothing to learn about the characters beyond what they say of themselves.
Or almost nothing. I count perhaps two scenes in Thank You for Smoking that have a function beyond exposition, the first of which brings Naylor together with a former Marlboro Man who is dying, bitterly and publicly, of lung cancer. (With the precision and predictability of a slide clicking into place at a lecture, Marlboro Man is played by Sam Elliott. In the same way, the tobacco cartel’s courtly leader must be Robert Duvall; the slickest talent agent in Hollywood is Rob Lowe; Vermont’s ill-dressed and self-righteous senator is William H. Macy; and Naylor’s blustery boss is J.K. Simmons. At shortstop for the New York Yankees: Derek Jeter.) But now back to Naylor, who must get Marlboro Man to accept a pile of hush money, stacked in the traditional metal suitcase. In the film’s best scene by far, Naylor accomplishes this daunting assignment by means of a classic con: He shows Marlboro Man how to use the suitcase in a public-relations stunt, getting him so caught up in this step-by-step demonstration that the mark is at last persuaded.
The tougher the challenge, the bigger the thrill. As Naylor says over and over, sparing our ears neither in voiceover nor on camera, he plays this game because he’s good at it, and plays it for Big Tobacco because they test his skill. Since no tenements loom in his background (their very existence seems unimaginable in the Buckley-Naylor world), you might be tempted to take the liar at his word and think he’s loyal only to his talent. But then, at around the eighty-five-minute mark, the film manages to put together its second dramatic scene, and Naylor shows that he does believe in a principle.
Risking his career (though not his flesh) by testifying before Senator William H. Macy, Naylor triumphantly asserts the right of every American to choose freely in the market, without the interference of a nanny state. I translate freely. What he actually says, with angry conviction, has more to do with his young son’s chances of smoking someday and other questions of a “what of the children?” nature. What Naylor means, though–this time, you don’t need captions to follow him–is that children grow up, and a grown-up society lets people buy what they please.
I will not argue with this defense of liberty, understood strictly as a consumer option, except to complain that it’s not cynical. As Thank You for Smoking reaches its Frank Capra climax–I mean Capra in his preachy years–the mild diversion of its lies and scams drops away, and with it all pretense of dirty fun. Smoking? It’s not a cool, dangerous drug kick but a policy statement. Corporate flackery? Not an exhilarating, amoral game but a necessary social lubricant. And speaking of lubricants: The only vice that remains unvirtuous, in the film’s scheme, is sex with Katie Holmes, who alone is punished for this sin.
In the name of Barbara Stanwyck, I say that women in the movies deserve better and ought to be able to do worse. Christopher Buckley himself recalls, in the press kit for Thank You for Smoking, that his original inspiration came from watching a Tobacco Institute spokeswoman at work. Couldn’t she have become Nicole Naylor? Or would postcoital smoke in a woman’s mouth have soured that fine word, “choice”?
As for Buckley’s adapters: I note that the lead producer of Thank You for Smoking, David Sacks, went into show business only in 2003, using the profit he’d made from an online financial-service business. That’s as much experience as is required in anarcho-capitalist Hollywood, where a film’s dialogue can now insistently laud Katie Holmes’s breasts without anyone on the set–the director, the costumer, the bleeding best boy, for Pete’s sake–remembering to show them off. A movie that praises professional hucksters, made by rank amateurs! But Sacks is spending his own money (as his first production preaches) and is free to enjoy it however he likes.
Your enjoyment, and mine, are our own lookout.
Flashing onto the screen and then fading away in languid rhythm, silently, views of a Mexico City residential quarter set the mood for Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season (Temporada de Patos). The roof line of a housing project, tilting against the sky at a Dziga Vertov angle. A close-up of someone’s bicycle chained to a lamppost, the rear wheel missing. Kids playing on a swing set in a lot beside a highway. A Volkswagen Beetle nosing slowly down a quiet street. A title tells you it’s Sunday, 11 AM, when nothing much happens. The images are black-and-white, as if waiting to be completed by someone’s act of imagination.
On the eighth floor of one of the project buildings, a woman nervously hurries off for the day. Did she remember to turn off the stove? Yes. Did she remember to turn off the coffee maker? Yes. Everything is secure for her 14-year-old son, Flama (Daniel Miranda), and his curly-headed buddy Moko (Diego Cataño), who can be expected to keep the apartment neat. Their only plan for the day: to play video games, drink Coke and munch on chips, without getting up from the sofa.
With one brief exception, everything from this point on will take place inside the little apartment, which despite the mother’s hopes slowly fills with physical disorder and emotional unruliness. First the power goes out. Then an unknown neighbor comes knocking–16-year-old Rita (Danny Perea)–to ask if she can use the oven. Then the boys order pizza but won’t pay the deliveryman, after he’s run up eight flights of stairs, because he’s eleven seconds late on the thirty-minute guarantee. Bespectacled and 30-ish, Ulises (Enrique Arreola) responds to this affront with more patience than exasperation, but he still refuses to be stiffed. Now that he’s staying, too, four people are knocking about the apartment, feeling bored, edgy, anxious, angry, sad and horny. They have several more emotions, too–but those take a while to show themselves.
Think of Duck Season as being, in its sly way, a road movie. Although the characters don’t go anywhere and the scenery doesn’t change, a handful of people are nevertheless shut up together as if in a car, to experience the mundane passage of time and explore one another’s natures. Even the title hints at road movies. The ducks figure in a painting of garage-sale provenance that hangs on the apartment wall: a picture of birds taking off for migration. A poignant image, especially for young people (and for an outsider from San Juan named Ulises). By the end of Duck Season, you understand that all these characters are taking off, too, no matter how stuck they seem.
Maybe, in fact, you understand too much. After the halfway point, Eimbcke’s script ticks off its revelations with almost metronomic regularity, at a pace that lets in one or two more than you might want. But this is the only forced aspect of a film in which the actors seem to breathe their roles rather than perform them. Lovingly cast, suavely directed and always pitched perfectly, whatever its tone, Duck Season is the kind of small, quiet, thoughtful movie that ought to be as abundant as Sunday afternoons. Better hurry to see it, because another won’t come around for months.