Thursday, April 13, 2017

Directorial Debut: Jason Reitman's THANK YOU FOR SMOKING

Welcome to a new installment of DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, where we look at some of the best, most interesting, and iconic directors and the films that started their careers. This week we take a look at the film that started Jason Reitman's career, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.

Jason Reitman, with his first three directorial efforts, solidified his place as one of Hollywood’s greatest working directors of dark comedic dramas. In 2007’s Juno and 2009’s Up in the Air, both of which earned Academy Awards nominations for Best Director, Reitman told unconventional tales of love and heartbreak in a genuinely creative fashion, combining quirky cinematography with even quirkier characters. This year, Reitman returns to the directing chair with Tully, his first feature film in three years, and this week, we look back on Thank You For Smoking, the movie that first showed the world Reitman’s creative genius.

Thank You For Smoking follows the career of Nick Naylor, an eloquent, smooth-talking lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an organization supported by tobacco companies in order to sway public opinion in favor of cigarettes. Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart) is a reviled figure, lobbying, in the eyes of his detractors, for death itself. However, his irresistible charm and undeterrable persistence successfully convinces audiences of the beauty of smoking again and again. However, no one -- not even Nick Naylor -- can maintain a perfect string of luck forever.

Reitman’s stylistic choices in Thank You For Smoking truly elevate this movie past being a simple comedy or drama. Gratuitous slow-motion, obscured lighting, and sarcastic voiceover are edgy techniques that could have turned into a complete mess at the hands of a less-talented directorial force. However, the pacing of Thank You For Smoking is so irresistibly charming that, even as it overwhelms you with abrupt stops and rough transitions, it keeps you completely engaged in its story. In a way, Reitman’s style mimics that of his protagonist, being simultaneously lovable and frustrating. Reitman’s quirky vision has not always succeeded (look no further than Juno, which, despite critical acclaim upon its release, has not aged all that well). However, in his feature film debut, he is truly at the top of his game.

The performances of his all-star cast are all truly outstanding. Aaron Eckhart plays a snake-oil selling, self-aggrandizing lobbyist in an unbelievably lovable fashion. J.K. Simmons demonstrates yet again that he is one of the best supporting actors in the film industry today. David Koechner, known primarily for playing Champ in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, plays a lobbyist for the gun industry with his typical reckless abandon. In general, all actors onscreen, down to small appearances by Sam Elliott and Rob Lowe, appear to be having the time of their lives and commit to their roles in a way that only could have been accomplished under a director who truly knew what he wanted out of every single one of them.

Negatives in Thank You For Smoking are extremely difficult for me to find. The script, despite being brilliant over the general course of the film, is occasionally a bit heavy-handed. As mentioned earlier, Reitman’s style is not for everyone. If you were not a fan of, say, Up in the Air, then you will probably not enjoy Thank You For Smoking. However, if you can accept the film’s tone and revel in its glorification of a man that most would despise in real life, then you will have such an amazing time with this directorial debut.

It has been eight years since Up in the Air, Reitman’s most recent critical success. Young Adult, his 2011 follow-up, was received positively, but was forgotten fairly easily. His next two films, Labor Day and Men, Women & Children, all received largely negative critical response. The glory days of Reitman may be over. However, after experiencing his first three amazing movies for the first time this year, I am truly optimistic for the future. If Tully is even half as good as Thank You For Smoking, then we will truly be seeing the resurgence of an excellent director. Go out and rent Thank You For Smoking this weekend. It is an extremely well-made, enjoyable film that stands, for me, as one of the best comedies of the 2000’s.

Jonathan’s Score: 10/10

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