Syrup and Satire
Confronted with the allegation that a certain Green Mountain food product increases cholesterol, a U.S. senator insists, "The great State of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese."
The line comes from Thank You for Smoking, which opens Friday at the Roxy in Burlington. It's a stylish feature directorial debut by Jason Reitman. William H. Macy, a Goddard College graduate with a getaway cabin in Woodbury, portrays Ortolan Finistirre, the fromage-defending elected official. Not above pandering to his constituents, the character wears suits with Birkenstocks and displays a photogenic collection of maple syrup containers on his desk. Although designed to look like a slab of Swiss, a Vermont map on the wall is emblazoned with the motto, "Where the cheddar is better." Visual jokes abound.
Aaron Eckhart portrays Nick Naylor, a slick tobacco lobbyist in D.C., with a pragmatic approach to the job. His voiceover narration extols the benefit of keeping a German scientist on the payroll to conduct pro-nicotine research: "The man's a genius. He could disprove gravity."
Nick cleverly defends the industry on behalf of his amoral bosses (J.K. Simmons and Robert Duvall) and treks to Hollywood, where a spectacularly self-absorbed agent (Rob Lowe) pledges more placement of the addictive product on the big screen.
Eckhart demonstrates smarm and sensitivity in the same breath, imbuing an ostensible villain with semi-sympathetic qualities. Macy nails his performance as Nick's politically correct nemesis, who's pushing legislation to mandate a large skull-and-crossbones poison label on every cigarette pack. While these men are equally calculating, the senator's earnest self-righteousness often collapses in the wake of his opponent's slithery charisma.
At last September's Toronto International Film Festival, major distributors engaged in an intense bidding war for the rights to Reitman's crowd-pleaser. Such competition is de rigueur in the indie world, but this particular battle made headlines because two companies claimed a verbal agreement from the producers. Threats of litigation ensued. Fox Searchlight ultimately released the movie.
One reason for the brouhaha is that, unlike most domestic comedies, this sharp satire manages to be hilarious without resorting to lowbrow humor. Adapted from a 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley (son of conservative commentator William F.), Thank You mirthfully skewers all sides of a controversial issue. Reitman (whose director dad is Ivan, of Ghostbusters fame) has acknowledged that one of his inspirations was Citizen Ruth, a brilliant 1996 parody of both pro-choice and anti-abortion forces by Alexander Payne (Sideways).
In Thank You, Nick regularly schmoozes with fellow spin doctors representing alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (David Koechner) at a restaurant where a sign reads: "Take pride in America -- we have the best government money can buy." But he fails to heed his colleagues' warning about an ambitious reporter (Katie Holmes) who asks to interview him for a Washington Post profile.
This subplot led to a second kafuffle, when a sex scene involving the young actress -- now Tom Cruise's significant other -- was mysteriously deleted before a screening at January's Sundance Film Festival. Conspiracy theorists blame the Church of Scientology.
Nick's only apparent vulnerability is love for his adoring pre-pubescent son (Cameron Bright), a relationship that occasionally slows the film's otherwise dynamic pace. As befits a lampoon, however, even human decency can't escape the withering barbs likely to entertain both mainstream and art-house audiences.
Roz Payne is heading to South Korea this week to participate in a panel called "Feminist Documentary Pioneers: A Thousand Voices" at the 8th Women's Film Festival in Seoul, running from April 6 through 14. The Richmond resident will also show four selections from her archive of more than 50 projects shot by -- or at least associated with -- Newsreel, a collective of radical filmmakers she helped form in the 1960s.
Make Out, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, Janie's Jane and Up Against the Wall, Miss America are pictures that speak to various counterculture concerns of the female kind. The hope is that, with Korean subtitles, those concerns will translate well for primarily Asian viewers in the 21st century.
After the fest, Payne expects to do some sightseeing. "I want to visit the DMZ," she says, referring to the De-Militarized Zone that separates South from North. "After the festival, I'll play tourist." Before leaving American soil, though, her first task is to find a travel guide and English-Korean dictionary.