Satire in the movies. On the one hand, it can be sharp, biting, memorably dark. On the other hand, it can be crass, base, instantly forgettable. But when it comes to the things that make us laugh -- really laugh, out-loud, long and hard -- it appears that the sight of airborne objects such as footballs, baseballs or anvils slamming into unsuspecting heads and the gurgling sounds of extreme flatulence are the comic bits that put an audience over the laugh-o-meter edge.
Forget the smart stuff, it's idiocy that plays best.
Unfortunately for Thank You for Smoking, which has been in theaters for several weeks, but which last weekend opened wide, falls on the smart side of the fence. There's no toilet humor, no slapstick, no objects to the head. While not exactly subtle, the jokes are often in coyly planted details, waiting to be mined by the alert.
Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette: Eckhart
The humor in Thank You for Smoking depends on our familiarity with -- and potential distaste for -- lobbyists and P.R. spokespeople, men and women who craft spin as a form of gospel truth for their special interest groups. And what better lobbyist to focus on than the one in the pocket of the tobacco industry.
Based on Christopher Buckley's novel, Thank You for Smoking follows the exploits of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a glib, grinning smooth-talker legendary for his talent to turn any contrary argument his way. "He could disprove gravity," grumbles one of Naylor's detractors.
"The beauty of argument," Naylor instructs his young, inquisitive son Joey (Cameron Bright), "is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong. And I'm never wrong. It's my job to be right."
That's a tough job when you have to defend the proven fact that cigarettes kill a half-million people annually in America. But Naylor merrily defends the cancer-causing sticks, bending the facts so that they suit his -- and his client's -- needs. He believes so strongly that he's right, it never occurs to him that everything he espouses is a lie.
Thank You for Smoking takes place in the '90s, not long before the tobacco companies got hit with crippling civil lawsuits. Nick's star rises as he confronts Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), a "tough on tobacco" politician trying to pass legislation that would require all tobacco products to be saddled with the image of a skull and crossbones and the word "POISON."
Nick also does a little wheeling and dealing on the Hollywood scene, in an attempt to get the movies to make smoking once again glamorous; he wants to take cigarettes out of the hands of "the usual RAVs" -- Russians, Arabs and Villains -- and put them back in the hands of the heroes.
Finally, he's tasked by his boss (Robert Duvall), CEO of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, to pay off the original Marlboro Man -- suffering from emphysema and extremely bitter about it -- to prevent him from continuing a negative press barrage against Big Tobacco.
Nick is ripe for a tumble, however, and it comes in the shape of a reporter (Katie Holmes), with whom he becomes lustfully engaged.
Directed by Jason Reitman, whose father, Ivan, had a string of hits in the '80s with Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, Thank You for Smoking balances cinematic irreverence (the use of ironic title cards, for instance) with a relatively tame, straightforward approach to humor. The results are uneven -- the film could have been much, much funnier, and much, much more stinging than it is -- but it's not a bad first effort.
The movie is studded with stars, but most have only a few minutes on screen. Still, several leave a lasting impression, notably Rob Lowe as a Hollywood exec with a over-the-top affection for all things Japanese, and The OC's Adam Brody as his quick-talking, vapid assistant. Macy is terrific as the angry yet constantly stupefied senator from Vermont, and J.K. Simmons alights the screen as the manic, volatile Budd "BR" Rohrabacher, Naylor's immediate supervisor, who barks things like "Cigarettes are cool, available and addictive! They almost sell themselves!"
Of course, Thank You for Smoking has a certain timeliness factor, what with the recent scandal involving D.C. lobbyists as well as the ongoing move by city governments to stamp out all forms of public smoking. But people still buy cigarettes by the carton-load. And for that, Nick Naylor thanks us from the bottom of his hollow heart.
Scary Movie 4
Scary Movie 4 takes the opposite road. The fourth in a series of movie parodies (and the second directed by David Zucker), it's a no-holds-barred, hit-or-miss affair, taking aim at War of the Worlds, The Grudge, The Village and Saw. Marching to its own moronic beat, Scary Movie 4 counts on our own familiarity with contemporary films and culture. If you haven't seen at least three of the movies in question, you may not find much to laugh at.
There's a brief, riotous nod to Brokeback Mountain and the Saw bits are masterpieces of sheer lunacy. At times Zucker reaches into his kitchen sink and comes up with a clog. Do we really need yet another Michael Jackson-pedophile joke? It's almost as worn as Leslie Nielsen's thinly-veiled takedown of our current president. Too often, the movie looks to the toilet for its extended laughs. On the other hand, sometimes, as in the case of a throwaway gag about Detroit, the comedy slams into your funnybone with magnum force.
What's genuinely impressive is how dead-on Zucker gets the visual tones of the respective movies. The War of the Worlds footage alone could be spliced into Speilberg's original and you'd never know the difference. (Well, you might at the sight of an alien tripod dry humping a vacuum cleaner.)
The acting is way, way, way over-the-top -- moderation isn't on Scary Movie's menu -- but Anna Faris and Regina Hall, veterans of all four films, maintain a wild, willful, anything-goes glee that drives the film through its most absurd moments.
In the end, Scary Movie 4 provides you with a good, solid laugh or two. The trouble is, once you leave the theater, you completely forget what you were laughing about.