Friday, February 02, 2007

MOVIES: Thank You for Sucking

After yesterday's hipster screed, I'm taking a breather before I tackle Oprah, but to keep myself warmed up, let me just share a few thoughts I have about a movie I recently watched that has me irrationally seething.

So, Rusty and I finally got around to watching
Thank You for Smoking the other night, after months of being told we absolutely HAD to see it, and frankly I don't get what all the fuss was about. I got absolutely nothing out of this movie other than the realization that, when it comes to irony, North America has seriously lost its way... if it ever had a way to speak of.

If you haven't seen it, the movie centres around the character of Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart), a media spokesperson for Big Tobacco, who's known as "the Sultan of Spin." While the tobacco industry is tangentially criticized in this movie, the real object is to skewer the entire concept of spin and how the media caters to it. My question is this: do we seriously need a movie to tell us this? At one point in the movie, when Naylor is in front of some sort of congressional panel arguing against warning labels on cigarette packages, he states that the big reason he doesn't see them as necessary is because EVERYONE KNOWS CIGARETTES ARE BAD FOR YOU. Well, this sentiment could be extended to this entire movie.

The only way I could see this movie being (arguably) useful is if it could reach some new audience, an audience that -- mysteriously, magically -- has never gotten the memo that you shouldn't trust those smarmy besuited white guys who appear on Larry King Live. But honestly, is anyone kidding themselves that such an audience is even going to hear about this movie, much less watch it? It has the feel of one of those movies (I'm looking at you, Bob Roberts and Wag the Dog) that a certain brand of smartypants liberal (not to be confused with MY brand of smartypants liberal) watches and congratulates themselves over, which reinforces everything they believe they know, but which makes not an atom of difference in changing any sort of public opinion. Which, you know, is something I always thought satire was supposed to do.

But putting all that aside, isn't it another objective of satire to be, you know, FUNNY? Because this movie felt like a primer in Satire 101, where someone painstakingly broke down and re-constructed all the superficial elements of satire, but forgot to include the funny bits. Admittedly, I may not be giving the movie a totally fair shake, because I frequently found myself so bored that I'd black out, levitate to another room of my house, and regain consciousness only to find myself sorting my sock drawer. Even assuming that the message of the movie is obvious and preaching-to-the-choir-ish, there are movies -- such as How to Get Ahead in Advertising or even Brain Candy, for god's sake -- that do this in a way that's absurd, over-the-top, and MAKES ME LAUGH.

I'm not exactly sure why I'm using my book site to rant about movies -- possibly only to demonstrate that I'm way meaner when I talk about movies than I am when I talk about books. (Why is that, do you think? Are you the same way?) I'm just sick of obvious, pseudo-critical content masquerading as intelligent, thought-provoking fare. The only thought this movie provoked was relief that at least I didn't spend fifteen bucks to see it in the theatre.

18 comments:

landis said...

Hmm. I've had this on my Netflix queue for a while, but I'm going to re-consider it, based on your review. I'm not really in need of un-funny satire.

Impossible Jane said...

I enjoyed the flick. I think that there is not enough satire. But I also think the majority of folks just don't understand it. Any sort of sarcasm goes right over my mother's head. Perhaps that's why I am so sarcastic.
Jane

Soltera Con Queso said...

Don't let the movie keep you from reading the book, which is a lot better (as is usually the case.) I had read it prior to seeing the movie, and it made the movie a lot more enjoyable, since I could supplement (in my head) what was going on on-screen with all the interesting stuff they'd left out.

Diner Girl said...

The book is better. Chris Buckley's writing is what makes the story compelling. Not Katie Holmes. Read the book and you might have a different opinion of this story. Also, as someone who does PR and lobbying in DC for a living, some of the jokes are a little "inside baseball" and don't come across as funny to most people. If you saw this movie in Washington, you would have heard bursts of laughter in odd places... because we are huge nerds. ;)

Andrea said...

I agree this is pretty inside baseball. As a "grassroots lobbyist" who works for an enviro group this made me chuckle a bit. I see these characters all the time at the Capitol.

However I found the movie not terribly funny overall. And I am of the opinion that the "irony" and pseudo-satire you speack of is one of the things that turns people off to being politically active. Which sucks and makes it even easier for people like the main character to win.

Bleh!

Genevieve said...

I'm another one who liked the book very much (I like pretty much all of Christopher Buckley's books). He's pretty hilarious and very sharp with his digs. The movie flattens it quite a bit.

I did enjoy the movie, but that's because I watched it on a plane and it was better than the usual airplane fare.

August said...

I actually enjoyed the film tremendously, much more than the book, really. For a number of reasons, mostly related to my being a huge film geek (so some of the reasons I'm going to give may be small and technical).

1) The title cards were far an away more creative than most Hollywood films.

2) The cinematography was understated but very cleverly executed.

3) The art direction was superb.

4) With the possibly exception of Katie Holmes, all the performances were spot on--satire is best, imho, when it's not over the top (I despise films like Brain Candy because they are so hugely juvenile and over-stated in their humor)--and Aaron Eckhart was a genius casting choice.

5) When it comes time to lay it all out in the courtroom, the book flinches and the film doesn't. Naylor is a scumbag, but the book reforms him so that the book (which was funny, but also flinched when it came to situating Naylor in the real honest-to-God world, and made up celebrities and brands rather than just going for it and naming them) ties up in the cute little children's book moral at the end. The film just says, look, this guy is a manipulative amoral jerk. Getting the shaft from his boss doesn't suddenly make him a hugely moral human being. It just cuts out the part where he's loyal to his boss.

6) Nobody smokes in the entire film, and the only person who tries to light up is shot and killed (John Wayne in the movie on tv).

Anonymous said...

I'm with august, in addition to Aaron Eckhart being my boyfriend (he calls me just to say hi, buys me flowers for no reason, takes me on long rides down the coast on the back of a black stallion who was too wild to be tamed... til he crossed paths with Aaron), but yeah, even aside from that, the whole flick is damn good.

I think what throws alot of people is the fact that the movie's a period piece that gives commentary on the period. It's like that old SNL sketch where Phil Hartman as the doctor tells Victoria Jackson that she's pregnant, then adds, "Your smoking for two now!" Some find it funny as hell, others find it horribly disconcerting. That happens when you're doing satire, not everyone is going to get or appreciate your joke.

I appreciate the joke, others don't, hey that's life and that's cool. I'm not saying it's a perfect movie, but I had to toss out my two cents and say that IMHO it really is excellent and definitely worth a viewing, if only to see my boyfriend in action!

meredithkb said...

I saw this movie a while ago so I don't exactly remember all the details. Yes, I do recall it being very "preach-to-the-choir-y" but I also remember laughing pretty hard throughout most of it.

Aren't the majority of movies kinda preaching to the choir?

Doppelsis said...

So, read any good books lately? How's that Oprah post coming along? How's the fam?

Dearnah said...

Pretty much all of my friends thought this movie was the best thing ever. However, I thought that the satire wasn't really satire-y enough to be funny or insightful.

Also, I am much more critical of bad books than bad movies. Bad movies are only a waste of 3 hours at most. But, the bad books I've read tend to only show their suckiness at or near the end of 4-5 hours. Books that end up being self-referential are the worst.

Doppelganger said...

Funny, after getting a good night's sleep and helping Sam make Valentine's Day cards, I don't feel quite as... impassioned about this movie as I did last night. Ah well... it was a heck of a toboggan ride, though, wasn't it?

I see everyone's points about humour and satire being subjective (of course). Since we're all in the trust tree together, I'll confess that I really liked the movie Idiocracy. So there you go. Judge me as you may.

Dearnah, that's interesting, because I think I'm just the opposite. I get way angrier about wasting my time on (what is to me) a bad movie, possibly because I encounter so many more of them than I do bad books. Or let me put it this way: I've never walked out of a book store thinking, "Everything in there sucked," whereas I've done this at video stores more times than I can count. And I liked Idiocracy! I'm not that hard to please!

And you, Doppelsis, DON'T RUSH ME. I'M THINKING!

J said...

Maybe I missed this day in class, but does a satire have to be funny? Is satire more about the ridicule than the humor? I think so, though I can't think of an example. Maybe someone else can.

Plus, to affirm the views of a few other posters, I also think a few of the jokes required knowing people that work in D.C. or similar venues. For example, I know several groups that have given themselves a club-kind-of-name with as much hubris as the "Dealers of Death." I think hubris is hilarious – just look at Antigone.

Seriously though, perhaps the movie isn't just telling us that smoking is bad and that lobbyists (and the tobacco companies) are bad people - but that the whole system is made up of incredibly arrogant individuals that will never learn the humility necessary to lead the U.S. well.

August said...

I still giggle at the fact that the kid's school is called "St. Euthanasius".

Vicky said...

I agree the satire was minimal but I the movie does, in fact, reach a new audience.
I'm in high school and everyone I know who's read the book and/or seen the movie is a little more media savvy now than before which is impressive for a lot of high schoolers and indicative that the movie's message is getting through. I enjoyed the movie, personally. It had it's moments. It's one of those movies you like but can't really remember anything about it, for me anyways.

kat miller said...

Book is much, much better. Also relevant is that the book was written in 1994 or there abouts, more when those lawsuits against RJR Nabisco were happening. The book is also much more character driven satire.

On the other hand, the movie definitely has an inside-baseball aspect. Like many who live there, I like to wave my Beltway Insider flag all about.

Janice said...

I saw it at the movies.It was alright I thought. I have seen better and I have seen worse. I would like to read the book

John said...

This is a fascinating post! It could not have been expressed better.