You know what they say: Those things'll kill ya. I'm actually not referring to cigarettes, although their own dangerously addictive qualities are the topic of this talky film. No, I'm referring to the semi-recent rash of activism documentaries. Over-indulge without moderation, and they are in fact likely to kill you... with borebom. This is not necessarily the case with "Addiction Incorporated", although information overload eventually undoes whatever momentum the film generates with its face-palm worthy recollections of Philip Morris' brazen early 1980s top secret scientific experiments involving nicotine junkie lab rats. The Holy Grail in this quest was to create a cigarette that would remain addictive but wouldn't foster heart disease. (This, apparently, was the industry slowly waking up to the fact that it's best not to kill off your clientele, if possible.) The man in charge was dyslexic chemistry whiz and future cigarette industry whistle blower Victor DeNoble.
The film is never better than when DeNoble, a weirdly magnetic individual, dominates the narrative as he does at the beginning. His self-deprecating and vivid anecdotes detailing his stumbling onto a new, greatly intensified version of nicotine addiction evokes a certain 1981 shameless, anything-goes promiscuity - still heavily lingering from the previous decade. Of course, back then smoking didn't carry the stigma it does today. Hence, wet-behind-the-ears director Charles Evans Jr. utilizes a handful of quick, no-budget insert shots that recreate the time, including images of people puffing away on airplanes while flirty stewardesses offer up cocktails. It says a lot with amusingly little.
But as the story quickly expands, so too does the list of on-camera interview participants, most of whom are not nearly as engaging as DeNoble, and all of whom are shot in front of unflattering wrinkled brown or grey backdrops that evoke a giant nicotine stain, or maybe an ashtray. Spanning thirty years worth of cigarette industry insider minutiae, the glut of interviewed individuals and piled-on details ultimately bottleneck the proceedings. We hear ALL ABOUT the FDA vs. the cigarette industry, as played out in real life, and how that version is different from the media portrayal of the events - all told with personal anecdotes and matter-of-fact sincerity.
If you paid attention to the news in North American circa 1994, you no doubt remember the seven cigarette company CEOs put "on trial" at the well-documented hearing. They were blowing smoke then, and their companies continue to do so today, although according to how this film ends, you'd almost think that smoking itself has been stomped out. We're shown recent footage President Obama (himself no stranger to cigarettes) signing some sort of smoking regulation bill just before some final footage of modern day Victor DeNoble lecturing wide-eyed and attentive school children on the brain-addling effects of nicotine. By this point, however, the viewer is also a little brain-addled from talking head inhalation. This old news of the dangers of cigarettes feels about as fresh as a neglected ashcan in a funeral parlor. "Addiction Incorporated" is far from the worst of its ilk, that being cut and dried activism documentaries that fancy themselves worthwhile cinema. It won't kill you, but it won't really make you stronger, either.
- Jim Tudor
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