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Why you should watch the Ghostbusters: Afterlife director's debut film
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The 2000s saw a boom in political satire in America. The Bush years were a seemingly bottomless well for a certain kind of cynical comedy about “The Way Things Are.” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were perhaps the biggest names in the game, but 2005’s Thank You for Smoking — which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video — is a major standout of the era. And it still feels depressingly relevant today.
Thank You for Smoking was the first feature film from Jason Reitman, son of legendary Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. The junior Reitman would go on to direct Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult, Tully, and more, including the long-awaited sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife, hitting theatres this month.
If you’d like to see where the Ghostbusters: Afterlife director got his start, check out Thank You for Smoking. And read on for why we think it’s worth your time.
What is Thank You for Smoking about?
Thank You for Smoking follows Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for Big Tobacco. Nick is at something of a crossroads. His wife has left him and fears that he’s a bad influence on their son, and he’s become a target. The US Senate wants to change cigarette packaging to label tobacco as poison, and they want Nick to testify.
As all of this plays out and Nick plans for how to handle a particularly thorny senator, he comes into the crosshairs of an anti-smoking group who make an attempt on his life, all while he wrangles a journalist who may or may not be trying to sink him.
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Nick narrates the whole thing, so we get a glimpse into his twisted, calculating mind. There is no right and wrong to Nick. There’s only winning or losing. He’s effectively a poster boy for our polarized times, when it doesn’t matter what you believe, or who you have to hurt, as long as you come out on top and your opponents eat your dust.
“I just need to pay the mortgage,” Nick says, again and again. It’s a rhetorical stance he himself calls, “The Yuppie Nuremberg defense.”
Thank You for Smoking makes no attempt to redeem Nick, and that may be its greatest strength. There’s no epiphany or moment of clarity. Nick has a code, but it’s a rotten code that no self-respecting human with a conscience could possibly entertain. But as cynical as it may sound, people like that do exist.
In one perfect example, Nick and his two best buds, lobbyists for the alcohol and firearms industries, have a little debate. They argue over whose work is most likely to invite violence based on how deadly the products they peddle are. The more deaths you’re responsible for, the better. Being such scum that people want to kill you is a badge of pride to these three. (The trio calls itself the MOD Squad, short for merchants of death.)
There's no one to root for in Thank You for Smoking. And there shouldn't be.
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Relatable or likeable characters are important to a lot of storytelling, but they’re not essential. And sometimes they detract from what you’re doing. There’s no one to root for in HBO’s Succession. Breaking Bad’s Walter White was never actually looking out for his family. Tyler Durden is an example of what not to be as a man in Fight Club. Some viewers might adopt these characters as objects of admiration, but that’s missing the point entirely.
Nick plays in that ballpark. He’s not good or relatable or even acceptable.
If at times the joke feels a little obvious or over-done, well, it’s worth noting that American politics have only gotten more polarized since 2005. And the dubious influence of corporate lobbyists has only increased. We’re living in a time of hyperbole. Our pop culture can’t help but reflect that.
One of Jason Reitman’s best
Jason Reitman’s career has been mixed, certainly. The Ghostbusters: Afterlife director has had his fair share of misses. For every Thank You for Smoking, there’s a Labor Day or a Men, Women & Children — duds, to put it bluntly.
But he’s had some big wins too. His work with screenwriter Diablo Cody has been especially noteworthy, including directing her Oscar-winning debut Juno, along with her stronger follow-ups Young Adult and Tully. He also produced Cody’s cult hit Jennifer’s Body, directed by Karyn Kusama.
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With Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Reitman seems to be retreating into safer territory, with his dad passing the family torch. But Thank You for Smoking points to the director’s strengths on his own terms. Strengths he was exhibiting from day one, and which point to a compelling voice in Hollywood.
It’s well worth a watch.