Worth A Look: 42.57%
Pretty Bad: 6.93%
Total Crap: 10.89%
11 reviews, 35 user ratings
|Thank You for Smoking
by Alexandre Paquin
I'm not a smoker and never have been. In fact, I hate cigarette smoke; my eyes turn red and my skin starts itching every time I get near it, and the stench is impossible to get off my clothes. But I don't mind smokers, unless I happen to be sitting in the non-smoking section of a restaurant and that Mrs. Bluehair sitting across the aisle, which inevitably happens to be in the smoking section, decides to light up as she watches the waitress bring me my main course. But then, smokers do not have a monopoly on lack of manners, although some public officials try hard to buttress this impression.Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking is not a bad film; instead, it's an outdated film, like great classics of yesteryear such as Tom Jones or Network that have lost most of their original impact due to changes in social mores. Except that Thank You for Smoking, by the time it was first screened, was already out of date not by a few months but by as much as half a decade: The Insider, whose makers had a much better sense of timing, was released in 1999, which was already five years after Thank You for Smoking's source material, Christopher Buckley's book by the same title, was first published.
"Thank you for nothing"
The widespread position on smoking in 2006 is no longer dedicated to sticking it to Big Tobacco, it's dedicated to sticking it to smokers themselves, and the war on smoking has become a war on smokers. This in itself makes Thank You for Smoking an anachronistic oddity at a time when the term "Health Nazi" is making a resurgence as a result of the justified crusade against cigarette manufacturers predictably turning into an inquisition targeting their consumers.
The phenomenon of companies refusing to hire smokers and even firing their smoking workforce, even if employees smoke only at home or outside of work premises, was inconceivable a decade ago. Businesses large and small, from Michigan's Weyco, which inaugurated the trend in 2003, to fertilizer giant Scotts Miracle-Gro, are either firing their smoking workers or planning to do so where it is legal, going as far as administering breathalyzer tests to root out the liars in an effort to curb health care costs. And who is to blame them, since they can cite the World Health Organization's decision last December to stop hiring smokers altogether?
All of this, of course, while tobacco consumption remains legal, the government's position on cigarettes now being along the lines of: "buy them, we need the taxes, but don't smoke them." It is a local joke that smokers have singlehandedly footed the bill for Montreal's 30-year-old Olympic Stadium, to be fully paid up this year. The province of Quebec will prohibit smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants, by the end of May. As expected, bar and restaurant owners are already going to court and lobbying to have the measure revoked or at least postponed, citing they will lose business because of it (never mind that they might actually gain mine), but what are we to think of another Quebec measure to ban smoking around hospitals, schools from kindergartens to universities and other public places where there might be children, in a radius of nine metres? As sport utility vehicles and other air polluters are not affected by the law, one has to assume the ban is for lifestyle reasons.
Hell, smokers are about to become a thing of the past, to such an extent that health officials have already locked in on the overweight as their next target for stigmatization and mass-ostracism. Just consider U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona's recent tactless (not to mention tasteless) shriek for funding: "Obesity is the terror within. Unless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempt."
There is, however, a major difference between smoking and obesity, in that the former really has no rational basis. Smoking is costly and superfluous, it has been stripped of any prestige it once had, and its health risks have been documented. The only logical explanation that remains is that nicotine is addictive, but this does not explain why many smokers are not interested in quitting or why previously non-smoking people are picking up the habit. I suspect it's out of defiance for an increasingly paternalistic society. It has become a new form of civil disobedience, and herein lies the irony: health officials have condemned smoking to such an extent that the act is on the verge of becoming as anti-social as it was in James Dean's days, thus almost glamorous again. Hence the stick: it's the only tool that remains, and this explains why health officials are not about to denounce employers who use it on their workforce.
Obesity, on the other hand, is sometimes the result of existing medical conditions: genetic predispositions are occasionally hinted at, and one study even concluded that it was a contagious virus ("stay away from me, fatso, or I call the police!"). In other cases, where obesity might be the result of too many calories and too little exercise, the action at its heart -- eating -- is, in its basic form, necessary to sustain life. In addition, studies tend to suggest that obesity might be the result of class-based factors and that the issue cannot be addressed without a debate on socioeconomic variables -- a debate that the U.S. government is obviously not interested in conducting.
The result of this logic is that smokers, now fully cognizant of the dangers of tobacco and who can only point to addiction as a reasonable explanation for their continued smoking, should expect to be more open to discrimination than the overweight, but making a distinction between the two groups will carry us only so far, as both are widely viewed as the result of lifestyle "choices", in traditional libertarian fashion, and that discrimination against smokers and the overweight is equally acceptable.
I remember libertarians pathetically trying to hail Thank You for Smoking as a vehicle for their ideology without them realizing that the film, while no fan of politicians attaching themselves to public health concerns for electioneering purposes, dismisses libertarianism through the tobacco industry's woefully transparent invoking of the consumer's "freedom to choose" to justify the sale of cigarettes.
And for all their advocacy of "choice" for smokers, libertarians are the first to turn around and grant employers and insurance companies carte blanche to "choose" to discriminate against them, or against blacks, gays, or any other group they don't happen to like. Libertarians' arguments are predictably deceiving, as no free choice has ever been made at the end of a gun barrel, and only those at the very top of the food chain have any meaningful "choice" whatsoever. "Free to choose" is the great libertarian lie.
I am more dismayed, however, by seeing the left share the same lack of concern for those who are on the receiving end of ostracism and discrimination.
In July 2005, The New York Times' Paul Krugman observed that the fast food industry, faced with accusations that it is to blame for the "obesity epidemic", is using tactics from the tobacco industry, which put the emphasis on the consumer's choice being at risk. Krugman dismisses the claim, adding that "only a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese". The familiar obesity-as-choice argument from libertarians is, indeed, absurd, but Krugman completely ignores the fat-acceptance movement (in denial of health risks, yes, but essentially well-meaning) along the way and cleverly removes from the individual any say over one's weight, simply because obesity is not only expansive, it's expensive.
The compassionate left at work, ladies and gentlemen.
There is one question Krugman never really got around to answering, though: If Americans are not "rationally deciding to become obese", why are they obese? (I know, I know, fast food, which is as convenient as saying that the Wright brothers are responsible for September 11.) And the corollary: If Americans did not choose to be obese, what makes one believe that they will successfully lose weight, especially those with obesity from genetic or medical causes? Do the poor choose to run out of money, or is it imposed upon them? (Libertarians have a ready answer for that one, too: the poor choose to be poor.) Maybe the overweight don't want to be obese, but maybe they don't want to be forced to lose weight to keep their jobs, either.
In the end, the left is as likely as the right to ostracize smokers and the overweight, each side pointing to the other as the pinnacle of intolerance and stupidity without even considering the bigotry embedded in their own perspective. Hence we are getting businesses mulling prohibiting their employees from smoking, or, why stop there, from eating outside of work (one company, with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board's approval, is even prohibiting its employees from fraternizing with one another outside of work), lawmakers forbidding people to smoke or, while they're at it, to be fat within nine metres of a public building lest there be a nefarious influence on children, and health officials almost secretly hoping for more discrimination against smokers and the overweight just to convince them to butt out or get their flab on that treadmill, while looking for an excuse to wrest yet more funds from the public purse until the next targeted group (moderate alcohol drinkers or blue cheese lovers, maybe) comes along.
How does Thank You for Smoking fit in all this? Answer: it doesn't. The innocent and blissfully unaware world that gave us the book and in which the film itself is rooted ended years ago, and the same applies to the transitional period that saw the release of The Insider. And although Reitman's film denounces both the libertarian argument and government health advocates always on the lookout for additional funding or some political advantage, it never goes far enough. And it's moldy.
We see tobacco industry spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) bribing a Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer, going to Hollywood to secure product placement in upcoming productions, and testifying against warning labels on cigarette packs, an issue that was settled aeons ago. Pope John Paul II, the Queen Mother and Ronald Reagan, not to mention Leni Riefenstahl, who could have done a smashing job for tobacco like she did for the Führer, were still alive back then.
We see Naylor's informal meetings with other "merchants of death" -- alcohol and firearms -- and the gradual corruption of his own son. What is missing throughout the film is any reference to the fast food and soft drink industries, today's main targets, or anything that might make Thank You for Smoking particularly relevant in 2006 in comparison to 1994 or 1999. Even a film on the radioactive water fad of the late twenties, which could have raised questions about our current scientific knowledge, would have been more compelling.
Thank You for Drinking Radithor not being in the works, however, I guess we have to be content with the Reitman film's mediocre history lesson. It points out that Reader's Digest, in between exposing Communist takeover plots, had first raised the question of cigarettes' toxicity in 1952, but never makes much of it because if it had, we would have realized that Naylor was building upon four decades of tobacco industry spin instead of inventing it.
Then comes the irony which ultimately brings the film down: although Naylor lies, distorts facts and hides behind the consumer's sacrosanct "right to choose" to defend the industry that pays him, the scare scenarios he has conjured up -- which in the mid-nineties were intended and seen as desperate grandstanding -- have become true: Smokers have been ostracized, health officials have become overzealous and brazen, and the smoker's right to choose, though hollow when defended by tobacco manufacturers, has effectively been taken away by paternalistic state officials, by insurance companies, and by meddling employers who would soon start telling their workforce what to read and how to vote if that could improve their bottom line.
Despite Reitman's best efforts, the impossible actually happens: while we know that Naylor is a phony and a hack, we start believing him, not because he tells the truth, but because there is now enough evidence to realize that he was right about the ultimate consequences of going after tobacco. And the minute he turns out to be right, it's the end of the film's validity. In my case, though I abhor smoking, I now find that the pendulum of social rectitude has swung back to the point where I find myself defending a person's right to smoke, which I would have deemed unimaginable five years ago, all of this while the first shots in the war on the obese -- whose likelihood of having made a "choice" in the first place is even less certain -- are being fired.
In these times, when a film called Thank You for Smoking comes along, I'm almost tempted to answer: "you're welcome", which is far from what Buckley and Reitman envisioned. But this is no longer 1994, after all.What next, Mr. Reitman, a Newt Gingrich biopic?
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12768&reviewer=287
originally posted: 04/15/06 05:40:37
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