If the new film Thank You For Smoking stirs up any debate in the media it’s lampooning, it will probably have to do with lobbyists, public health and the world of spin control. And that’s swell. Unless, of course, it’s an orchestrated campaign by corporate parent 20th Century Fox to goose publicity for the movie. So hard to tell about anything you hear these days.
But writer/director Jason Reitman, working from the novel by Christopher Buckley, probably had a bigger fish to fry. Namely, how do you make the star of your movie both willfully reprehensible and maddeningly likeable? For that is Nick Naylor, as played by Aaron Eckhart. Naylor is the media spokesman for The Institute for Tobacco Studies, a front organization for Big Tobacco, which is fighting the public perception that its product does nothing but kill people. If Naylor is torn by internal struggle it shows nowhere on his face. Nick Naylor is so confident in his own mind and mouth that he has apparently sought out the most unpopular job on Earth to test his gifts, as someone with good quadriceps might seek out Mt. Everest. He meets weekly with fellow lobbyists for firearms and alcohol, where by sheer death count, Naylor can boast of being the most reviled. I do not recall Naylor ever putting a cigarette to his lips in the film.
Buckley and Reitman have staked out Libertarian territory for Naylor, allowing him to score legitimate punches on personal freedoms and the hypocrisy of self-serving do-gooders. It’s easy to see why Naylor’s wife left him, and why she still carries a torch for him. It’s easy to see how his 12 year son could look up to him, and also nail him where it hurts. As clever as Thank You For Smoking is in celebrating its political incorrectness, it doesn’t run away from the contradictions. Or attempt to weave them into a larger moral, for that matter. When all is said and done, Thank You For Smoking is the story of Nick Naylor, and Reitman makes it a fun ride, with all the sharp turns of Buckley’s arch humor and an ultimate destination that finds everyone getting pretty much what they deserved.
Reitman directs with confidence, and who wouldn’t with the cast he assembled. Eckhart is supported by J.K. Simmons riffing on his own J. Jonah Jameson boss from Spider-man, Bill Macy doing his easily befuddled prig as crusading Senator Ortlan Finisterre, Sam Elliot, pitch perfect as The Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer, Katie Holmes as an opportunistic journalist, Rob Lowe as head of a Hollywood talent agency, and Adam Brody stealing the scene as Lowe’s assistant, a young power player of such manic self-possession that he leaves even Nick Naylor speechless. Even non-showcase roles are filled with the likes of Maria Bello, Robert Duvall and Deadwood’s Kim Dickens. Competing against a slate of films with their own toxic formulas, Thank You for Smoking is a breath of fresh air.
© 2006 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/29/06
Thank You For Smoking
U.S. - 2006