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Satire is a tricky genre. The basic rule of effective storytelling -- at least the kind that audiences have responded to ever since stories have been told -- is to provide characters that one can relate to and feel some modicum of empathy towards. Nasty, biting satire flies in the face of this conviction. It urges you to recognize the very worst qualities in people. In a way, though, they live or die the same way any genre does; on the sharpness, cohesiveness and clarity of their observations.

"Thank You for Smoking" is the directorial debut of Jason Reitman, son of famous father-director Ivan. Aaron Eckhart plays a tobacco lobbyist, struggling to keep his big business afloat amidst declining public opinion of his product. His strengths lie in his ability to win every argument simply by not losing; he can manipulate and alter the course of any debate in his favor. During the course of the film, he is kidnapped, tormented and threatened. For a short time, they succeed in shaking the ground beneathe his feet, leaving him wandering aimlessly without purpose. By film's end, he is back doing the only thing he knows he's good at; unfortunately, it is still at the service of death dealers.

The film, as described above, almost seems like an abbreviated version of "A Clockwork Orange", and just like Kubrick's film, it plays a one note melody. Eckhart is exceptional, as always, at portraying a morally corrupt man with his own skewed convictions. The film starts bravely, but once the tone is set and the first rumblings of motivation and point of view are introduced, that's all there is to the film. There's no growth, no propulsion; in short, no reason to keep watching.

"American Dreamz" comes from the writer/directors behind "About a Boy" and "American Pie". Hugh Grant plays a bored, selfish Simon Cowell-type host of a talent competition who welcomes the President (Dennis Quaid) as guest judge during a finale event that finds a Middle Eastern suicide bomber waiting in the wings. The film is full of concepts -- Bush-inspired stupidity, fame-hungry dreamers and the foreign disdain/envy of our shallow culturisms. The problem is these concepts never blossom into fully-formed ideas. For a 105-minute film, the writing offers the same depth and insight as a late-bite talk show monologue. The first rule of satire, as with any filmmaking, must be to have something to say. It's hard to decipher any coherent theme or message within the hodge-podge that is "Dreamz".

"Dreamz" would have been a home run if it had dealt with the contrasting quests for eternity -- the kind that Americans think they can achieve through fame, and the Middle Eastern subsect that believes it can be earned through martyrdom.

But that's the kind of depth the film doesn't seem remotely interested in exploring. "Thank You for Smoking", while unlike "Dreamz" in that it wears its arrogant intelligence on it's sleeve, also fails to build on its ideas. The difference is, "Thank You" seems to have some semblance of a motor in its corner (through the obviously talented and "present" cast, the strongly defined point of view); it just simply runs out of gas before it really gets started.

Thank You for Smoking: B- American Dreamz: C

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