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A review of "Cold Turkey" (1971)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Cold Turkey is an oddball film.  It's one part screwball comedy, one part dark comedy, and one part political satire, but it plays out more like an ensemble fantasy with a lot of comic relief.  It doesn't always hit its mark, and its presentation of smoking comes across like a different universe compared to today, but there's still enough laughs to make this one worth your time.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

A marketing rep at a tobacco company, Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), comes up with a cynical idea to garner good publicity for their company.  Inspired by the Nobel Peace Prize, he suggests they award a $25 million prize to any town in America that can completely give up smoking for one month.  The board of directors initially scoffs, but they come around to the idea when Newhart reminds them that it would be virtually impossible for an entire town to quit at the same time.

Unfortunately for him, there is one town up to the challenge: Eagle Rock, a failing establishment in Iowa.  Led by the outspoken and determined Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke), the city council manages to get all 4,000 of its citizens to sign a commitment to give up smoking for 30 days in order to claim the prize.

One quick note here.  If this movie was made today, I think a lot of it would be spent on the logistics of how such a contest / initiative could be enforced.  But Cold Turkey is not concerned with these details.  It's a movie about ideas, not practicality.  So you'll just have to accept it on faith that the town actually has quit smoking and that their progress is being tightly monitored by the tobacco company.

A good chunk of the film is just spent on the hijinks that ensue when hundreds (thousands?) of people all quit smoking at once.  There are some pretty funny bits in the second act where everybody flips out - you know, screaming at children and kicking stray dogs and the like.  Good stuff.

But as Eagle Rock remains true to its pledge, the rest of the nation takes notice.  Traveling vendors come to Eagle Rock to set up shop and hock their wares.  Tourism suddenly boosts,  And the citizens of Eagle Rock capitalize by opening up a slew of chintzy souvenir booths.

Understandably, Wren is concerned that his company will have to suffer a $25 million payout, so he travels to Eagle Rock to try to set them off-kilter and get anybody to light up a cigarette.  More hijinks ensue as the town builds up into more and more of a frenzy, climaxing in a gathering at town square that results in screeching arguments, hostility, multiple deaths, and even worse: a visit by Richard Nixon.

In the end, Eagle Rock is successful in its pledge, and the US government rewards their efforts by promising to open a new missile factory in town to ensure continued economic stability.  The film ends with a picture of enormous cigarette-shaped smokestacks of the new factory pumping out enormous clouds of smog over the town, and nobody learns anything.

The Bit Where I Give a Bit of Background and Discuss Satire

Cold Turkey would not get made today.  It was apparently kind of difficult to get it made even in 1971 - per the Wikipedia article, the film was shelved for a couple of years after its initial production because the studio feared there was not enough box office potential.  Much as I hate to agree with a faceless corporation, they were absolutely right.

As far as film goes, satire is one of those genres that almost always goes wrong when you try to inject it with any dose of subtlety.  (Granted, Cold Turkey is not the best example of subtlety, but I'm making a point.  Bear with me.)  America is a nation with 300 million voices each speaking freely, openly, and with confidence - maybe make that 299,999,999 voices, as I'm barely confident that I've tied my shoes, let alone that I'm making any sense when I open my mouth.  Anyway.  My point is that there's so many opinions and voices and perspectives going back and forth that it can be hard to tell when somebody is being sarcastic.

Unfortunately, as a rule, this means that satire in American film is often painted in broad strokes.  When you do try to tone it down a bit, you run the risk that audiences will either not get it at all (and you end up with weirdos who totally misread Fight Club) or they may misconstrue your film as being arrogant or somehow pretentious.

Cold Turkey is not necessarily subtle in presentation, but in purpose it certainly is.  The points it has to make are not really about smoking, but that may be all that the studio could see.

On top of that, Cold Turkey bites off a little more than it can chew.  The movie paints a bullseye on everyone.  Religion, small town politics, federal politics, the media, public health... there gets to be a point when it feels like Cold Turkey is that smug asshole who sits in the corner at a party and complains about everyone.

So it's not terribly surprising that Cold Turkey has been relatively unnoticed for the last forty years.  It's a well-made comedy made by brilliant people who doesn't pull any punches, in the vein of The Graduate, Being There, and Slap Shot.  But unlike those films, it doesn't have the kind of laser focus to make its points accessible.

That's not to say that there isn't a point - there absolutely is.  It just gets a little bit lost in the noise.  But let's take a closer look since it's an interesting message.

The Part Where I Talk About Communities and Common Goals

Through and through, Eagle Rock is a community at risk.  At the beginning of the film, it is a town on the verge of total collapse: the population is dwindling and economically depressed.  But poverty isn't the only threat.  Throughout the run-time, Eagle Rock comes face to face with a host of problems, pollution, exploitation, and fascism among them.

The problem is that the community never actually unifies around a common goal.  Sure, they all commit to their pledge to give up smoking for a month, but it's not true unity.  Eagle Rock only gets the commitment of 100% of its population by twisting arms or blurring the goals of the Cold Turkey project.  Consider the Christopher Mott Society, an ultra-conservative group that only supports the initiative once they are convinced they will be given authority to police all incoming traffic and effectively put the town under martial law.

Everybody approaches the project with an ulterior motive.  Most of them just want the money, which is the most obvious joke.  But even people on the outside looking in are self-serving.  Television personalities flock to Eagle Rock to piggyback on their publicity and politicians - including the president - visit Eagle Rock to garner support and attach their name to a movement out of vanity.

Tellingly - and perhaps the movie's most brilliant move - not a single person in this film about giving up smoking actually cares about giving up smoking.  Not a single person is interested in the health benefits or social change.  Nobody genuinely believes in Cold Turkey - not the people who created it as a PR stunt nor the people who seek to benefit from it.  Virtually every other possible reason to participate is given - fame, fortune, or even just the allure of being part of "the movement."  But not actually giving up smoking.  Hell, the population gathers in the town square so they can all take a unanimous puff of a cigarette as early as possible when the challenge ends.

Even though it gets sidetracked, the film is ultimately critical of social movements that are undertaken for the wrong reasons, and I think that message does get through.  True, honest, worthwhile change can only be effected when a coalition of people with a common desire and clarity of purpose work together.  Otherwise you just end up with a bunch of assholes fucking around.

Even Reverend Brooks, the man who spearheads the movement, doesn't actually really care about Eagle Rock's health specifically.  He's mainly hoping to make the project work as a career move.  Speaking of which, let's briefly talk a bit about this guy.

A Bit About Religious Characters

I found Van Dyke's character refreshing.  Reverend Brooks is a great three-dimensional character with his fair share of bumps - something you don't see too often in representations of priests and the like in film.

He's an activist, but he's motivated by selfish goals: if he can turn Eagle Rock around, he can be re-assigned to a better town.  He pursues a noble goal, but ultimately has to play political games: he takes up smoking as a stunt to show off solidarity with his fellow citizens.  And although he is a religious and moral man, he is not above dirty tricks: he threatens physical violence on more than one occasion and is happy to let the town council use extortion to get the people of Eagle Rock to commit to their non-smoking pledge.  He's likable and affable, but treats his wife like dirt.

I can't honestly think of a recent film that portrays religious people as actual human beings the way this one does.  (Feel free to post with a correction if I'm being dense.)  Movies seem far too concerned with pigeonholing religious characters into one of three groups: corrupt bastards like the warden in The Shawshank Redemption, psychotic bastards like Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist, or perfect bastards like everyone in a Kirk Cameron film.  It's rare to see a film that treats religious people as people first, and religious second.

Maybe that's why religion doesn't do much for me.  I can't buy into a belief system if I don't feel like its adherents are real humans.  I wonder if I'd convert if a chain-smoking sex addict tried to sell me on God?  I do like Jay Bakker, so maybe there's something to this.

Hmm. Somebody better let the Pope know.  If he's worried about church attendance, I've got a PR stunt for him that might do the trick.

Where You Can Watch

Cold Turkey is streaming on, and if you have Prime, you can watch it for (basically) free.