Thank You for Smoking and Take the Lead

Thank You for Smoking

R, 92 minutes
Now playing at Regal Downtown Mall 6
For times call 817-FILM

I grew up in a haze of cigarette smoke. My dad (emphysema) went through three packs a day. My mom (lung cancer) went through two packs a day. And I myself have respiratory problems that, let’s face it, are probably attributable to second-hand smoke. But I’m not such an anti-smoking fiend that I wasn’t able to enjoy Thank You for Smoking, Jason Reitman’s satiric comedy about a tobacco-industry lobbyist who actually seems to feel good about what he does for a living. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is handsome (in a business-suit, expensive-haircut sort of way), and boy can he present an argument. Defending the indefensible, he has an answer for everything, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the right answer or not. In fact, it doesn’t even matter whether he believes the answer—it only matters that he has an answer, a rejoinder, a witty retort. My parents would have loved the guy.
And you may, too. Based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel—which, in taking on the smoking/anti-smoking debate, let both sides have it with both barrels—Thank You for Smoking is refreshingly un-PC. It doesn’t exactly praise Naylor, who would do anything for a cigarette, but it doesn’t really condemn him, either. Yes, he’d say just about anything to further the noble cause of Big Tobacco, but he’d be the first to admit that. With a personality that’s equal parts charm and smarm, he’s nothing if not sincerely insincere. Early on in the movie he makes a what-my-dad-does-for-a-living appearance at his son’s school, and before you’ve gotten over the shock of a man convincing a group of kids that the jury’s still out on the dangers of smoking, he’s framed the discussion in terms of children’s need to think for themselves. He has all the answers. It’s the questions that give him trouble.
The real trouble begins once he gets sent to Hollywood, a town that’s even better at blowing smoke up the public’s collective ass than he is. Naylor’s mission: get people smoking in movies again, and not just the hated RAVs (Russians, Arabs, Villains). Humphrey Bogart (esophageal cancer) used to smoke like a chimney, on and off the screen, and he was the very definition of cool. Why can’t the Dream Factory light up again? These scenes, starring Rob Lowe as a kimono-draped sensei (a la Michael Ovitz) and Adam Brody as his viciously sycophantic assistant, are the movie’s high point—the screen practically drips with sarcasm. And in Lowe’s über-agent, Naylor has finally found his match, a spin doctor whose entire life is a series of house calls. (“When do you sleep?” Naylor asks him. “Sunday,” Lowe replies.) Does this cause our nicotine-addicted hero to entertain second thoughts? On the contrary, he’s more wired than ever.
Then he gets kidnapped, but only briefly—just long enough for the kidnappers to cover his body with nicotine patches, a potentially lethal laying on of hands. Like Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, which reduced the abortion debate to a frolic, Thank You for Smoking gives off a caffeinated (or is that nicotinated?) buzz. It doesn’t go for big laughs—it just lets the smaller ones build on occasion. And Reitman, who adapted Buckley’s novel himself, adds little cinematic touches—like brief freeze-frames where Naylor fills in the background on somebody via narration—that help preserve the book’s slightly giddy tone. Strangely enough, there’s no actual smoking in the movie, even by Naylor, whom we’re told puts his mouth where his money is. On the other hand, we’re introduced to a former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who now sucks from one oxygen canister after another. (Naylor drops off a suitcase full of cash to keep him quiet, of course).
Believe it or not, the movie does have a moral compass, and so does Naylor. Just don’t expect it to point due north. When Naylor heads out to Hollywood, he takes his son (Cameron Bright) along for the ride, and you expect a moment of truth to finally arrive. But there are no moments of truth in the PR business, only moments of truthiness. Like so many fathers before him, Naylor tries to pass on what he’s learned, and not even an exposé by a reporter (Katie Holmes) who specializes in undercover (as in between-the-sheets) work can dim the son’s admiration. Nor does a congressional inquiry led by a Birkenstock-clad liberal senator from Vermont (Bill Macy), who would gladly walk over his grandmother to nail Naylor. Nobody comes out of this poop-flinging contest smelling like a rose. But the pox-on-both-your-houses approach is like a breath of…well, not fresh air, exactly, but at least highly mentholated.

Take the Lead

PG-13, 108 minutes
Now playing at Carmike Cinema 6
For times call 817-FILM

I thought the whole idea of combining ballroom dance and rap was played out after Master P stood there while his partner put herself through the entire Kama Sutra on “Dancing with the Stars.” But here’s Take the Lead, which stars Antonio Banderas as a ballroom-dance instructor who teaches a group of inner-city rejects how to glide through life’s difficulties. Think Dangerous Minds, only featuring the tango and the waltz instead of old Bob Dylan songs. (Or maybe Mad Hot Ballroom: the next generation). Banderas’ character is based on Pierre Dulaine, the gentleman who convinced some of New York City’s most neglected public schools to add ballroom dancing to their curriculums. And although Dulaine’s program hasn’t graduated to the high schools yet, Hollywood producers can dream, can’t they?
What they dream about, I suspect, is combining the hip-hop market with the burgeoning Fred-and-Ginger dance revival. And if Banderas is still capable of generating some sexual heat after playing a dad in Spy Kids and a putty-cat in Shrek II, so much the better. Actually, he seems more than capable, moving his lithe body around like a caged panther, but the script puts a chastity belt on him. We never really know why Dulaine takes time out from his busy schedule to show these detention students how to square “Shake That Ass” with “Fly Me to the Moon.” The movie isn’t really about him. It’s about those detention students—the roughest, toughest, most back-talkin’ crew since “Welcome Back, Kotter.” As they slowly succumb to Dulaine’s charms, adding their own flava to his moves, most viewers will feel they could have written this script in their sleep. And scriptwriter Dianne Houston might just have.
But there’s always the promise of championship ballroom dancing, right? Unfortunately, this is a promise that the movie largely fails to keep. For some reason, director Liz Friedlander keeps cutting away from Banderas’ big tango number, leaving us to wonder whether it was all put together in the editing room. And the hip-hop/clippety-clop finale, where the Cosby Kids show the fox-trotters a thing or two about expressing yourself, suggests there really isn’t a future for this strange hybrid—a pity, perhaps, because each has something to learn from the other. Ballroom dance could stand to loosen up a bit, and hip-hop could use a few pointers on how to treat a lady—although the movie has to fudge the fact that, in ballroom dance, it’s the man who takes the lead. Or, as one of the students puts it, “Mr. Dulaine is getting his flirt on.”
I wish.

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