Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Thank You - Not!

By Mitchell

The first thing you notice about Thank You For Smoking, writer-director Jason Reitman’s take on the Christopher Buckley best-seller of the same name, is that exactly nobody in the movie actually smokes. Not onscreen, anyway. Now, we’ve been conditioned in these hip, post-modern times to think that the title might just be some kind of ironic commentary, and that therefore we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of tobacco use on screen. Perhaps, we think, the story isn’t even about smoking.

Ah, but it is; in fact, there’s so much smoking action in the book that you could practically contract lung cancer just by resting its covers on your chest. We could get into an extended discussion on whether or not the lack of smoking in the movie is a result of some P.C.-think, or if it’s just a big joke on the filmmaker’s part, waiting to see if anyone actually notices the irony. (Speaking of irony, it’s surely ironic that one of the major sub-plots of the story is the hero’s efforts to sell Hollywood on the idea of including smoking as a sort of product-acceptance-placement within movies. Apparently Jason Reitman wasn’t one of the moguls he talked with.)

As I said, we could get into this discussion, but I don’t think we will. It does, however, bring to the forefront the fact that there are a lot of differences between the film and print versions of Thank You For Smoking. I know, that’s hardly a revelation, is it? After all, Gone With the Wind stands as a superior movid adaptation of a book because the movie only cut out one of Scarlett's children. To base a review of a movie, particularly a negative review, simply on the difference between the movie and the book on which it was based is to display something between ignorance and naivety about how the movie business works.

And so I realize I’m going to have to come up with more than that to justify ripping this movie. TYFS can certainly be criticized on its own merits, as well as for the areas in which it falls short of its source material. However, it would be foolish to simply disregard those movie-vs.-book comparisons as unimportant, especially when it comes to changing the key elements of the book plot in such a way as makes it difficult for the movie plot to stay cohesive (and true to the author’s intentions).

So, adopting the breathlessly hip tone of the movie (a tone which, incidentally, was absent from the drier, more subtle book), let’s take a look at the three common forms of book-into-movie adaptation:

The “Slavish Devotion” Method. This approach was much more common in the heyday of the television miniseries. (Think Masterpiece Theatre, or perhaps Roots or The Thorn Birds. You know, one of those sprawling epics that keep networks like Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel in business.) Roughly speaking, one page of the book equals one minute of screen time, so a two-hundred page novel translates into a four-hour (with commercials) miniseries. By the time you get to one of those dictionary-sized books, you’re talking about enough programming to take care of a whole sweeps period. And while you still might not get the entire story of the book in one of these miniseries, you’re going to be so overwhelmed by the end that it won’t really matter.

The “Let’s Just Borrow the Title” Method. Think James Bond here. I mean, do you think Ian Fleming really pictured the Space Shuttle when he wrote Moonraker back in 1955? Of course not. Frankly, the title and the lead character are about all the average Bond movie has in common with its namesake. And there’s nothing wrong with that; the filmmakers realized they were creating a new art form with the Bond movies, one that could coexist in relative harmony with the books. I’m sure Fleming didn’t complain; after all, the movies made a ton of money, and probably boosted the sales of his books. And fans didn’t complain: even if they read the book, they could go to the movie knowing the suspense hadn’t been ruined for them, since they’d be seeing a completely different story.

The “Square Peg – Round Hole” Method. This is probably the most common type of adaptation. It involves editing the book’s story until it fits into the movie’s running time. The basic elements of the plot are retained, even though the need to shoehorn the book into this strictly-defined time period means characters are condensed, action is compressed, and subtlety is all but eliminated. It gives you a basic understanding of what the book was about, although scores of book-report-writing schoolchildren throughout the years can testify that seeing the movie is no substitute for reading the book. This seems to be the method Jason Reitman used in adapting and directing TYFS. How successful was he?

Well, he gets the basics right, and in sometimes delightful ways. The movie opens with our hero, the tobacco-industry lobbyist Nick Naylor (a smarmy yet endearing Aaron Eckhart), appearing on an Oprah-like talk show in which he’s confronted with “Cancer Boy,” a balding, gaunt teenager in the grip of lung cancer caused by his tobacco use. As in the book, Naylor calls on all his spin-doctor skills to turn the entire issue sideways: why, after all, would the tobacco industry promote a product that kills its consumers? In the end it only means losing a customer, and why would any good business knowingly do that? In fact, it’s the anti-tobacco advocates who stand to profit the most from Cancer Boy’s death; remove the poster-child for the evils of tobacco, and all you have left are a bunch of white-coated scientists putting everyone to sleep with their medical jargon. By the time Naylor’s done, even Cancer Boy seems to look at him as a friend.

Then there’s Nick's regular luncheon companions Polly and Bobby Jay, lobbyists from the alcohol and firearms industries respectively, who together form a group they call MOD, (Merchants of Death). Although they don’t play the prominent role in the movie that they do in the book (especially Polly, the booze lobbyist), they capture the tone of the characters exactly right.

But here the movie begins to lose the devious complexity of the book. In simplifying the plot, Reitman sacrifices much of the intricate detail that made the climax particularly satisfying. [WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD] And in doing so the movie suffers not only in comparison to the book, but on its own merits as well.

The first sign that things were amiss occurred after Naylor, appearing as a guest on the Dennis Miller show, receives a threat on his life. Now, Nick is used to such things – they come with the terrain – but there’s something about this threat that stands out. In short order Nick is kidnapped, his body covered by nicorette patches, and dumped nearly naked at the Lincoln Memorial. He comes to in the hospital, surrounded by concerned family, friends, and co-workers. He’s told by his doctor that he must quit smoking (the smoking that we never see him do on screen), since his body has absorbed so much nicotine from the patches that any more could kill him. And, … well, as far as the movie is concerned, that’s about it.

In the book however, this scene plays a pivotal role. The FBI, failing to produce any leads as to Nick's abductors, begin to suspect him of staging the whole thing for publicity. His friends and co-workers start to doubt as well, and this is where the book begins to shift from a political satire to a suspense thriller, as Nick searches for the answers to these and other questions that begin to haunt him.

So who was responsible for the abduction? The movie, omitting the “he-staged-it-himself” theme, never bothers to answer the question, which essentially means the entire scene could have been left on the cutting-room floor without any impact whatsoever on the rest of the story. One watching the movie with no prior knowledge of the book might find it an odd scene to include, and might ask himself the same question: what was that all about? Without the whodunit aspects, the scene can’t even be justified as a red herring. There’s simply nothing to it, and a wasted scene like this is a serious flaw in a brief (92 minutes) movie – especially since book-to-film translations emphasize editing for “time constraints.”

Hard on the heels of this scene (in the book) is Nick's realization that one (or more) of his co-workers is out to sabotage him. The movie only hints at this, in an initial scene where it’s implied that Nicks' boss BR (J.K. Simmons) takes credit for an idea of Nick's. It’s handled well but, as with the kidnapping scene, nothing more comes of it. And then there’s another devious co-worker, the sexy-but-dangerous Jeannette, a major player in the plot who’s cut out of the movie all together. The book's Nick finally puts all the pieces together and in self-defense replies with a ruthless course of action (complete with Deep Throat-style characters), that leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion, one quite different from that which Reitman furnishes.

I could give away more of the book’s story, but why bother? Just buy the paperback edition and enjoy it. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t pick on one of the movie’s major flaws, one that has nothing to do with the book, for it was this flaw that ultimately convinced me to give this movie the thumbs-down. It occurs in the movie's final act. Nick has been totally embarrassed in a newspaper article by his journalist-lover Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes, who as the weak link in yet another movie proves once again that any acting beyond her love for Tom Cruise goes way beyond her range). The tobacco institute dumps him, his lobbyist friends (whom he betrayed with his comments in the article) abandon him, his son Joey (Cameron Bright, and it should be added that Joey plays a much more important role in the movie than he does the book) becomes depressed by his father's failure. With nothing to lose Nick appears before a Senate commitee and, using all the skill he has, embarrasses the publicity-seeking Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (brilliantly played with true greasiness by William H. Macy), thereby winning back the respect of his friends, the love of his son, and the renewed respect of the tobacco institute.

And here's the movie's biggest failure: Nick, flushed with triumph and vindication, appears on the steps of the Senate with the newly-loyal BR, facing a battery of cameras and microphones, whereupon Nick announces that he's spurining the renewed affection of his old employers to go into his own consulting business. Or rather, I should say, Nick voices over this announcement, while the scene plays out in a montage of still images in the background.

Now, one of the cardinal rules of movie-making is this: never tell when you can show. And, having battled with fiction writing for many years myself, I can tell you that there are two reasons why an author describes a scene rather than letting his characters tell the story themselves: either he can't come up with the right words for his characters because the scene is so hard for him to describe that he keeps avoiding it until the end, or he admits that the words he has come up with are a total failure and decides to cover it up the best he can.

I don't know which one of these best describes Reitman's tank job in this pivotal scene. Having led the audience to expect some kind of climatic showdown between Nick and BR - having, in fact, encouraged us to think that Nick was finally going to let him have it - the scene falls flat on its face. Oh sure, we see BR's shocked expression as he realizes what Nick is doing, but we don't really savor it. The whole thing feels rushed, as if Reitman came to the end of his alloted time, realized he wasn't done yet, and tacked on the scene in order to explain everything. The voiceover narriation and snappy style that's served him reasonably well throughout the movie fails him miserably here.

And Reitman fails the audience miserably as well. In the 92 minutes of screen time he has, he introduces potential plotlines and then abandons them, throws in scenes that go nowhere, and then rushes us through a climax that never really comes off. One wonders if the meter was ticking on this project, if he couldn't have added an extra ten minutes or so and written a more satisfactory ending. Or maybe he just got tired of the whole thing, as I did sitting in the theater.

It's really too bad, because there was much to like about TYFS: the smart, intelligent wit, the snappy dialogue, the sharp acting (we didn't even cover the delightful cameos by Rob Lowe, Sam Elliot and Robert Duvall), the clever graphics, the cool style. Ultimately it was the story that let us down, and in that perhaps we were expecting too much. It just proves that packaging isn't everything, even in the movies.

Christopher Buckley, when asked what the movie's agenda was, replied that it was to make him money. And why not? Having already writtin the story he wanted to write, he could afford to sit back and count his money while Jason Reitman wrote a completely different tale. I'm sure Buckley was laughing all the way to the bank.

Which was probably more laughter than Thank You For Smoking: the Movie deserved.

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