Did You Miss the Most Shocking Film in Years?
September 29, 2015
(The shortened opening)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to. A lot of movies try hard to shock us nowadays.
(Cut to a promo image for A Million Ways To Die In the West)
NC (vo): With trigger words, disturbing imagery...
(Cut to a shot from Saw 7)
NC (vo): ...gross ideas...
(Cut to the poster for The Human Centipede)
NC (vo): ...but many of them come out as exactly that: just trigger words...
(Cut to a shot from The Devil's Rejects)
NC (vo): ...disturbing imagery, and gross ideas.
NC: What makes something truly shocking is the meaning behind it.
(Cut to an image of an angry boy screaming with his mouth wide open)
NC (vo): A little kid can say a lot of bad things, but the message...
(Cut to an image of an angry girl with her arms crossed in a pout)
NC (vo): ...fueling it is what declares if it's worth the effort to pay attention to.
NC: So, what if I told you, in our PC media, there is a smart, funny film that said...
(Cut to footage of Thank You For Smoking)
NC (vo): ...giant corporations are good, manipulating the masses should be treasured, haggling with cancer patients is an art, public figures pushing good health shouldn't be trusted, body counts can lead to long friendships, and, of course, smoking is fucking cool.
NC: You'd say, "How the hell did that get a wide release, and why the fuck aren't I talking about it?"
NC (vo): Well, that movie is a little comic masterpiece called Thank You For Smoking, Jason Reitman's first film that focuses on characters and values that you'd more likely see as the villains in a bad after-school special. Our star is Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, a lobbyist and spokesperson for the tobacco industry whose job is to convince as many people as possible that smoking is not only good for you, it's great for you. And the funny thing is, he's actually kinda good at it.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart): It's not only our hope, it's in our best interest to keep Robin alive and smoking. The Ron Goodies of this world want the Robin Willigers to die, so that their budgets will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery, (pointing to one person in the room) and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.
NC (vo): His arch rival is a senator from Vermont, played by William H. Macy, who's trying to prove what should be very easy, that smoking is bad for you. But as we see, the senator is just as manipulative as the tobacco companies, just on the other side.
Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy): (addressing an official in his office) When you're looking for a cancer kid, he should be hopeless. He should have a wheelchair, he should have trouble talking, he should have a little pet goldfish in a Zip-lock bag, hopeless.
NC: How often do you see a senator promoting healthy living as the villain in anything?
NC (vo): He meets every week with two other spokespeople for corporations that claimed a lot of lives, to compare and contrast who's doing the most damage. They playfully call themselves the merchants of death. Why, he even meets with media experts to spread more and more of the message that smoking is great and even tries to encourage children to pick it up!
BR (J.K. Simmons): Teen smoking, our bread and butter, is falling like a ship from heaven. We sell cigarettes, and they're cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.
NC (vo): To the film's credit, it makes no qualms that it's doing very dirty things. But what makes it so interesting is that it makes us root for what many consider the bad guy, just because of how incredibly likeable he is. Nick Naylor is charming, smart, loves what he does, is good at what he does, but most importantly, and even surprisingly, has a moral center, especially when it comes to raising his son. He wants his boy to turn out well, but raising him and smart and ethical values is tricky, given what he does.
NC: He does, however, explain what he does rather well.
Nick: (to son, Joey (Cameron Bright)) Let's say that you're defending chocolate and I'm defending vanilla...
Joey: It's the best ice cream. I wouldn't order any other.
Nick: I believe that we need freedom and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.
Joey: But you didn't prove that vanilla was the best.
Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right.
NC (vo): As you'd expect, this creates conflicts in asking himself what is truly right or wrong. And nowhere is that more prevalent than in the film's climax. He has to go up against the senator after his lowest moment and prove that what he's doing is ethical, sound, and wise, and all while his kid is watching. The interesting thing, though, is, where most movies would take the path of having him realize he's evil and turn his life around, he instead makes a different decision, but nevertheless just as important: to stop being morally vague and stand firm, focused, and detailed about his beliefs.
Nick: (to Sen. Finistirre) It's called education. It doesn't come off the side of a cigarette carton. It comes from our teachers and, more importantly, our parents. It is the job of every parent to warn their children of all the dangers of the world, including cigarettes, so that one day, when they get older, they can choose for themselves.
NC: And yes, that belief is saying that smoking is okay.
Sen. Finistirre: (pointing out Joey to Nick) On his eighteenth birthday, will you share a cigarette with him? You seem to have a lot to say about how we should raise our children. What of your own?
Nick: If he really wants a cigarette, I'll buy him his first pack.
NC (vo): Really think about that: the happy ending is our main character teaching his child that if he wants to smoke, he should be allowed to. Try to think of any other movie nowadays that could not only do that, but do that in a smart, intelligent way. In fact, he does it with an argument that's practically ahead of its time. He brings up how Vermont, a big promoter of cheese, is a bigger killer than cigarettes because of cholesterol, and that their promotion of the product has done much more damage than the tobacco companies ever could, leading, of course, to one of the film's funniest lines...
Sen. Finistirre: The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!
NC (vo): This is an issue nowadays that's getting more and more attention.
(Cut to a montage of images of book covers and movie posters about the subject of bad food detrimental to people's health: Fast Food Nation, Fed Up and Poisoned)
NC (vo): There's news specials, movies, books, and yes, even lobbyists trying to prove that a lot of our food is poison.
(Cut to a promotional image for Food Policy Action and a message: "Tell Congress: Don't gut healthy school lunches!")
NC (vo): Rather this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, and...
(Cut to a shot of a session of Congress)
NC (vo): ...yeah, I guess it is being debated.
NC: But it does come down to what that film and this issue are all about: choice.
NC (vo): The film isn't really about smoking; it's about validating the rhetoric and allowing you to do what you want to do with your body.
NC: Don't believe me? Watch the film again and answer me this question: how many people do you see smoke?
NC (vo): Nobody! There is not a single shot of anybody puffing anything in the entire movie. They talk about it endlessly from beginning to end, but not once does anyone ever take a puff of a cigarette. Because that's not what the film is about. Smoking is used as a symbol for the hazards we're going to subject ourselves to, but nevertheless have the right to subject ourselves to it.
NC: The smoking is very similar to our main character.
NC (vo): We know he's bad for us, and we'd probably be healthier if we didn't allow him into our lives, but there is value to his existence. We can admire that he doesn't force anyone to join his side, he convinces them, which is a trait we'd all love to acquire. And not only does he do it well, he does it with passion. He loves what he does. He loves how not only can he do it legally, but as creatively as possible. In fact, the alternate ending almost ruins the entire film by going against everything that it's been standing for, stabbing in the back all the controversial truths that make it so shockingly unique. Thank God they went with the original and better ending, a conclusion that Nick sees as a victory for him, but the senator sees as a failure for him; two totally different viewpoints, yet the exact same outcome. Again, it's the choice of the audience to decide whether this was an ethical move or not.
NC: And the great thing is, the whole entire movie's like that!
(Cut to a shot from the movie 1984)
NC (vo): You could see this film as a story about a terrible world, like 1984...
(Cut to a shot from V For Vendetta)
NC (vo): ...righteous rebels, like V For Vendetta...
(Cut to a shot from Fight Club)
NC (vo): ...or somewhere in between, like Fight Club.
(Cut to a shot of posters for the three films together)
NC (vo): But the difference between those movies that were so shocking were in their day and Thank You For Smoking is, those stories always centered around a corrupt and controlled environment that people fought against.
(Cut back to Thank You For Smoking)
NC (vo): With this, they embrace the corrupt and controlled environment and actually see the advantages of it. That seems a million times more shocking than (the posters for 1984, V For Vendetta and Fight Club are shown again) these other films. It has a point of view that is almost never seen, at least not in such a major mass market. It's a message that's manipulative, diabolical, and most shockingly, you find kind of agreeing with part of it. How much is intentional satire and ethical truth is up to the viewer, but in most shocking films, it's pretty easy to tell who you're supposed to root for and who you're not. This film leaves it totally up to the viewer. It's kind of like Patton: some people can watch the film and love him; other people can watch the film and hate him. But neither one is incorrect, it's just different point of views of hard truths. Thank You For Smoking walks that line, but still has the balls to stamp unpopular opinions that will get anyone who sees it talking.
NC: So... why aren't more people talking about it?
(Cut to a shot of the poster for Borat)
NC (vo): Maybe because its shock tactics are different than most other shock tactics in film.
(Cut to a shot of the poster for American Pie)
NC (vo): It didn't have the gore, sex, or trigger words that get most controversial movies the huge amount of attention they usually get.
(Cut back to Thank You For Smoking)
NC (vo): And don't get me wrong, it didn't bomb or anything, but if this came out today, chances are it would probably get a few more people upset. However, for those that were fortunate enough to discover this little gem, it opens up a world of controversy that not only becomes interesting to talk about, but surprisingly fun to talk about. How many other films make it enjoyable to talk about something that's uncomfortable? It's enjoyable uncomfortable – a beautiful oxymoron. It's a brilliant comedy that needs to be talked about, shunned, loved, and hated more than it is. Put simply, it represents everything in America that's wonderful and terrible, both at the same time.
NC: (looking up in thought) And speaking of shocking violence and gore, isn't there a certain something that's coming up next month?
(Suddenly, there's the sound of thunder as lightning flashes, while the opening notes of "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor" play; the NC smiles evilly. The credits roll)