Out of all the lies, evasions, and various pass-the-buck-isms that have come out of the Enron case, so far none have been as blatantly you've got to be kidding me as the incredulity-defying whopper I read on the front page of the L.A. Times this morning. Kenneth Lay, stuttering and waffling on the witness stand, denied he'd sought to influence anyone's testimony and bristled when prosecutor John C. Hueston suggested he'd been trying to "get his story straight." "I don't have a story," Lay declared.
Okay, hold everything right there. Because in April, 2006, in America, nay the whole of Planet Earth, to utter those words is to pronounce oneself utterly nonsensical. Not have a story?! You know and I know and everyone knows by now that having a story in our day and age is like having lungs. To say "I don't have a story" today would be like saying, "I don't have a cellphone." The only response conceivable is to roll one's eyes.
Three years ago, I wrote a song entitled Storyman, about the perils of reading 8-10 scripts a week while working in the belly of the studio beast, and how it totally twisted one's perception of so-called reality. From the third verse:
When a friend tells me the problems he's having with his wife?
I'm thinking he's got problems with his second act
Because his female lead isn't very empathetic
She's a difficult character to root for
And as a couple, their story development lacks credibility
When he tells me he hopes to save their marriage
With an anniversary in Cancun, I find myself saying:
Wouldn't a Mexican divorce... play better?
I thought I was being funny about what I then perceived as the peculiar by-product of a particular job, but the world at large has since zoomed right past me. You don't have to be in a studio story department to see everything you do and experience as a high concept movie.
Everybody's doing it, and none more so than our current administration. The other day I heard NPR news correspondent Nina Totenberg talking about the White House's rhetoric surrounding the appointment of Tony Snow as the President's new press secretary. "That's their story line," she said, and this language was slipped so easily and naturally into the discourse that I realized we really have slid past the point of no return. It's now an accepted convention: our elected officials no longer deal in such pesky little things as -- what did we used to call them? -- facts. No, they tell us stories.
Same as it ever was, you might counter, but no, though the distinction may be subtle, never before have we lived in a culture where we assume that the very fabric of human interaction is made up of... making things up.
Leave it to Hollywood to find a movie-able hero in all this -- a leading man who can exemplify what the snarky art of such storytelling is about. He's brilliant lobbyist Nick Naylor, the "Sultan of Spin," and as played by Aaron Eckhart in Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking, he is most assuredly a man for our times. And I'm happy to report that in tackling the Story Man Logic phenomenon, Reitman, Eckhart and company, while pulling a few punches, have delivered something I was starting to think had disappeared from the multiplexes: a smart and timely satire that doesn't underestimate its audience's intelligence.
Eckhart, instantly, scarily memorable in his debut (In the Company of Men), sneakily scene-stealing -- as much as one can be, with a 600-pound Julia-rilla in the room -- in Erin Brockavich, is a joy to watch here. His particular persona (the almost annoyinging handsome alpha male who can charm the spots off a leopard) is a perfect fit for Nick Naylor. What he does, in tandem with Reitman, adapting Christopher Buckley's novel, is make this seemingly reprehensible, heinous monster of a truth-shaper... endearing, if not outright lovable.
Screenwriting students often raise the question, doesn't my protagonist have to be likable? The obvious answer is of course not (witness the supremely unlikable Charles Foster Kane, Don Corleone, Hannibal Lecter, et al); your protagonist has to be fascinating. A compelling character (not necessarily a conventionally sympathetic one) is the real key to creating audience empathy. Naylor, the glibly manipulative "Yuppie Mephistopheles," is horrifying in his ability to defend the tobacco industry, but as he himself puts it, it's what he does best -- and we always enjoying watching someone who's supremely good at something do their best.
As movie lore has it, in the old silent days, if you wanted to establish who the hero was in a western, you had him come out of the saloon and pet the dog sitting there; the villain was the guy who came outside and kicked it. Reitman has shrewdly given Naylor a very strong dog to pet in the character of son Joey (Cameron Bright). Essentially, we're given permission to root for Naylor because he so clearly loves his son, and consistently does right by him.
Naylor's heart of gold excuses a multitude of sins, but the real fun in the satire comes from watching this anti-hero skewer the other hypocrites in his sphere who simply aren't good enough in their storytelling to out-spin him. Some of the best moments arise when he actually meets his match in a deliciously pretentious super-agent played by Rob Lowe, but what's admirable overall, in this hat-trick of audience manipulation, is that Reitman allows shark-like Naylor to gleefully expose the culture of corruption he swims in -- while never entirely letting him off the hook.
Reitman, having clearly studied at the feet of a master (his dad Ivan, who gave us Ghostbusters, among other durable comedy goods), had made his movie much in the style of Nick Naylor -- light on its feet, flashy but effectively so, and irresistibly entertaining from its snappy title sequence to its brisk badda-bum! wind-up. He's aided by an impeccable dream cast (old hands William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott, younguns Adam Brody and a surprisingly sexy Katie Holmes, among them) that would make any director look good, but on the basis of this writing-directing debut, I'll put my money on Reitman as an auteur to watch.
Some have faulted the pic for being too flip about serious issues, but I'm just happy that someone's made a movie that puts this one issue -- the insidious practice of storytelling as a prevalent societal disease -- front and center.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.