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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

From the suave to the naive

Spin doctor wants to 'Thank You for Smoking'; 'Mongolian Ping Pong' is gentler fare


It’s no secret that sophists are the leading philosophical group in America, but this has rarely been as well demonstrated as in Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. The movie is held together by Aaron Eckhart’s sparkling performance as Nick Naylor, a major spokesperson for the tobacco lobby. Mr. Eckhart’s character obviously enjoys misleading those who fulminate that cigarettes can kill you, and his half-truths are so magnetic they’re almost sexy.

Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, “Thank You for Smoking” has a flimsy plot, in part because the producer is worried about making Nick Naylor likable. Nick is divorced, but seems to care about his young son, Joey (Cameron Bright). He argues his ex-wife into letting him take Joey with him on a trip to Hollywood, where he tries to influence stars to start smoking again in films the way they used to.

Joey learns a lot on the trip, because his father is constantly instructing him in ways of not lying but not telling all the truth. When the suave but essentially vicious head of the tobacco company firm he represents (Robert Duvall) sends Nick to deliver a suitcase full of big bills to the Marlboro Man, now dying from cancer, to keep him quiet, Joey gets to watch his father at his best, convincing the old man that either he should call the press and denounce cigarettes, or keep the money and be quiet. He keeps the money.

Nick’s jobs are interrupted from time to time by Washington barroom meetings of the MOD squad (merchants of death), composed of Nick, the spokesperson for the liquor industry (Maria Bello) and the head of the gun lobby (David Koechner). These sessions are clever, especially the one in which Nick triumphs, convincing the others that cigarette smoking, responsible for 1,200 deaths a day, easily outclasses the opposition in its murderous effects.

Unfortunately the plot descends to a tasteless sex scene between Nick and an ambitious Washington reporter (Katie Holmes) who draws on his spontaneous pillow talk for a sensational front-page exposé of his methods and those of the MOD squad. The publicity leads to a climax in which Nick has to testify in Congress. There he is opposed by the naive anti-smoking senator from Vermont, Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), who is immediately put on the defensive by Nick’s charge that his state’s cheese builds up cholesterol, a much bigger killer than cigarettes.

Joey learns to admire his father’s skill as a lobbyist and wins a trophy as best debater in his school. By then, however, Nick’s charm had lost much of its appeal for me. “Thank You for Smoking” provides its share of clever wordplay and satire, but the laughs never cut very deep.

If you’ve grown tired of Hollywood excess, you may warm to the slow-paced, gentler pleasures of the new Chinese movie Mongolian Ping Pong. Directed by Ning Hao, it takes a leisurely, near-documentary look at a family living not far from the Gobi desert, where there are few visitors and a small white ball floating down the river seems both a discovery and a mystery to 7-year-old Bilike (Hurichabilike).

Bilike is living with his father, mother and older sister along with sheep and a few small horses, and “Mongolian Ping Pong” is a gentle chronicle of growing up in vast spaces without most modern appliances. On one level, it seems only the amusing story of the response of Bilike and his close friends Dawa (Dawa) and Erguotou (Geliban) to the finding of the ping-pong ball, an object that seems completely exotic to them. Dugema, Bilike’s grandmother, always busy spinning, tells him it’s a glowing pearl, sent down the river by spirits. The children incorporate the ball in their daily routine, first solemnly licking it to find out if it’s sweet.

Eventually Bilike and his friends learn -- via a voice on television -- that their treasure is indeed a ping-pong ball, the ball for the national sport. They decide to set off to Beijing on two ponies and a motorbike to return it to its official keeper. Needless to say, they never get close, but unlike “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the 1980s comedy hit from South Africa, the Chinese movie never mocks its naive subjects.

“Mongolian Ping Pong” offers breathtaking landscapes that will awe both children and adults. The former will learn that Mongolian parents still believe in physical punishment, but heavy coats and well-padded backsides absorb most of the damage. Adults will be more conscious of the way in which subtler stages of growing up are suggested, with Bilike ending up going to school in a nearby town, where he lives with his sister, who has been accepted as an apprentice in a dance group. Their parents are left lonely and overworked, but will occasionally be visited by titanic rainbows, like one we glimpse during the movie. As wise as it is sweet, “Mongolian Ping Pong” is worth searching for at alternative movie houses.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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