By COELI CARR
IN "Thank You for Smoking," an acerbic new movie about a tobacco lobbyist, the camera paints a quick but telling portrait of his bane, Senator Ortolan Finistirre, an antismoking environmentalist Democrat from Vermont, played by William H. Macy. A poster of Cheddar cheese hangs on his office wall. Tins of maple syrup crowd his desk. The proof positive of his moral rectitude, however, comes in a cutaway shot of the senator's feet encased in thick white socks and sandals.
They are not just any sandals, but boxy buckled Birkenstocks, the footwear that has become synonymous with a certain type of noodge. Or in the senator's case, worse. In his rabid desire for citizens never to inhale, he is portrayed in the satiric movie as mercilessly berating an employee, manipulating consumer sympathies and seeking to slap a skull and crossbones on every package of cigarettes in the land.
"Nothing says, 'I want to tell you how to live your life' more than Birkenstocks," said Jason Reitman, the director of the film, which is to open in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on Friday. "The visual registers immediately. There's something about the shoe that is universally understood that makes it so funny." The sandals are emblems of liberal do-gooderness, he said, and the senator — a villain in the movie — wants to "regulate the world."
Though real Birkenstock wearers may come in all political persuasions, using the sandal to represent the pushier side of liberalism is a long-running joke. As it turns out, Birkenstock doesn't mind at all.
"He's wearing the Vermont costume," Scott Radcliffe, the marketing director at Birkenstock Distribution USA, said of Mr. Macy's character. Mr. Radcliffe said that the "Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching, Volvo-driving fill-in-the blank stereotype" emerged in the broader culture without any doing on the company's part. The company finds it entertaining, he said, that the sandals have reached the kind of status that qualifies them for movie close-ups, even disparaging ones.
"To me a Birkenstock fan looks at that, laughs and is not alienated," he said.
Of course not every film pokes fun at the shoes. Sometimes, Mr. Radcliffe suggested, a Birkenstock is just a Birkenstock, as when Michelle Pfeiffer wore a pair around the house in "What Lies Beneath."
Other times it is the sandal's unabashed frumpiness that lands it an on-screen cameo. Take "The Office," the NBC comedy. In one episode this season the nerdy salesman Dwight Schrute wears Birkenstocks with socks to an after-work barbecue and mentions that he keeps an extra pair in the car for special occasions.
Dwight, who venerates the corporate ethos, might not seem the Birkenstock type, until one considers that he lives on a beet farm and does karate. (Later in the episode he hits it off with an obvious soul mate, a female colleague in felted gray Birkenstocks.) Carey Bennett, the costume designer for the show and herself a happy Birkenstock wearer, said that she wanted something "that would fit in with Dwight's wardrobe, because he's very sensible."
Oddly enough, Birkenstocks were first embraced by a segment of society that was considered anything but sensible: flower children.
In 1966 Margot Fraser, who was born in Germany and was living in Santa Cruz, Calif., spotted the foot-friendly sandals on a visit back home and wanted to sell them in the United States. Local shoe stores weren't enamored of the sandals. One potential retailer described them as hideous, Ms. Fraser said. It took a health food store owner, who noticed them at a convention and scooped up a few pairs for her customers, to bring them to the attention of others with back-to-nature tendencies, who became smitten.
"All they had to do was see the shape of the sandal," said Ms. Fraser, who retired last year from Birkenstock Distribution USA, the company she founded, "and it was 'Oh, my God, it makes sense.' "
Birkenstocks are sold in more than 5,600 places in the United States, including department stores, shoe stores, online shops and 216 Birkenstock specialty stores. Despite the whims of fashion, like the renewed love affair with the high heel, sales have grown at a modest, steady pace of about 10 percent a year, Ms. Fraser said.
Birkenstocks have caught the fancy of college students and high schoolers who grew up in Birkenstock-wearing families or who just want to emulate their freethinking 60's predecessors.
"They're the modern hippies," said Peg Swisher, who owns Sole'y Birkenstock in Albuquerque. Calling those customers "young granolas," she noted that they tend to prefer Birkenstocks in classic colors — taupe, black and mocha — while the older generation gravitated toward less conventional colors. Ms. Swisher, 51, owns them in patent leather and silver and wore a pair of gold Birkenstocks to a governor's ball 10 years ago.
Jimmy Jimenez owns three Steppin' Birkenstock Shoes stores — in Princeton and Ridgewood, N.J., and in New Hope, Pa. — and has noticed that older shoppers are more inclined to say the footwear is ugly but extremely comfortable. His teenage customers, though, don't seem to care about the odd shape.
"The younger crowd finds the look desirable," said Mr. Jimenez, 31, who wears the Boston clog, in taupe suede or seal-brown nubuck, year-round. "I think the simplicity of it gives it its charm." He feels certain that pink suede versions of two popular styles — the Arizona at $99.95 and the Boston at $109.95 — will sell well this spring.
Whether the sight of Senator Finistirre's Birkenstock-clad feet generates a sandal-buying frenzy, however, is another matter. After hearing about the satiric portrayal of the Vermont senator, Mr. Radcliffe responded that his company is "happy to be playful with our celluloid image," and that people who wear Birkenstocks appreciate the stereotypes associated with the brand. But "Birkenstock fans," he said, "feel like they're part of something bigger than most other shoe choices, frankly."
"After all," Mr. Radcliffe continued, "the brand's strong point is its power to elicit both positive and negative reactions. That speaks to the bigger cultural relevance of the brand. That's something I want to participate in. That's not something I'm trying to shake."