THANK YOU FOR SMOKING(director/writer: Jason Reitman; screenwriter: from the book by Christopher Buckley; cinematographer: Jim Whitaker; editor: Dana E. Glauberman; music: Rolfe Kent; cast: Aaron Eckhart (Nick Naylor), Maria Bello (Polly Bailey), Cameron Bright (Joey), Katie Holmes (Heather), David Koechner (Bobby Jay Bliss), Adam Brody (Jack Bein), Sam Elliott (Lorne Lutch), Rob Lowe (Jeff Megall), William H. Macy (Senator Finistirre), J. K. Simmons (B. R.), Robert Duvall (the Captain), Daniel Travis (Brad), Kim Dickens (Jill Naylor), Todd Louiso (Ron Goode), Joan Lunden (Herself); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Sacks; Fox Searchlight; 2005)
“In the end, all the pic has left to peddle is its own amoral cleverness.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director Jason Reitman (doing shorts and commercials prior to this film; he’s the son of Ghostbusters’ director Ivan-known in Hollywood circles as a liberal) in his feature film debut makes this a chic, eager to please all, satirical look at a Washington-based spin doctor at work defending smoking. “Thank You For Smoking” is a put on politically incorrect expression substituted for the much used socially acceptable contemporary expression of “Thank You for Not Smoking.” It’s based on the book by Christopher Buckley — whose well-known conservative father William F. Buckley was founder of the National Review. The rights to the book are owned for the last ten years by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions company (who couldn’t find a filmmaker to film such an unlikely cinematic story until Reitman changed things from the book to make it more cinematic). Those involved in this project seem to be patting themselves on the back for being so smart, as the film’s premise rests on the given that the uninformed public will be confused and not know what to believe is right or wrong. They think that by copying the way the successful lobbyists work, their film will also find success by being audience-friendly. At one point the tobacco lobbyist hero says “The beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
The film neither promotes nor dissuades people from smoking, but instead tries to show how slick the lobbyists are in deflecting the bad news from their cancer stick products and still making their fading product appealing enough to keep increasing sales. The film depends on the peddler of death, our roguish hero, being perceived as both likeable and obnoxious, a Colonel Sanders type of a lobbyist. Aaron Eckhart (“Erin Brockovich”/”In the Company of Men”), in his best role yet, in a role that he was born to play, is a good actor for such a difficult part because he exudes the requisite charm while showing off a smile that can be both friendly and insidious; but his sly amoral character eventually wears out its welcome when you see through this surface character (or at least you should) and he just becomes a tiresome bore–another yuppie soldier in the army of banal evil–despite a highly charged complex performance.
The film is set in the recent past, just before the good ol’ tobacco boys lost their first big court suit and started going downhill. It has the glib, fast-talking, smartly-dressed, personable and handsome chief spokesman for Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), who is employed by the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a group sponsored by a conglomerate of the tobacco people, defend at every turn the rights of smokers and cigarette manufacturers as the true American way. He promotes cigs in his 12-year-old son Joey’s (Cameron Bright) exclusive private school, on the Joan Lundon TV talk show, on the Hill against the attacks from Vermont’s priggish anti-tobacco Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) who is sponsoring legislation to put skull-and-crossbones images on the label of every cigarette pack and even delivers a bag filled with blood money to get the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), recently diagnosed as dying of cancer, to stop bad-mouthing in public the tobacco industry.
The smart-alecky Nick reveals to big chested Washington Post reporter Heather (Katie Holmes), in an exclusive interview, the reason he works for such an evil industry is because it pays the mortgage and he’s good at it. The reporter, an unethical version of the ambitious Nick, lures him to bed and uses his off-the-record comments to write a headline story telling how he blasts the tobacco industry for trying to confuse the public about the real dangers of smoking by putting out misleading info and in the bedroom he gets too talkative as he mistakenly rats out his fellow lobbyists, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), a lobbyist for the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), a lobbyist for the gun manufacturers, colorfully calling themselves the Mod Squad (Merchants of Death) who meet weekly and love to boast of how many people their sponsors kill a year.
Under pressure from his back-stabbing, two-faced boss, B.R. (J. K. Simmons), to find a new campaign to sell its dying product, Nick comes up with the idea of getting Hollywood to return to promoting smoking in their pics as sexy by sponsoring their films. The Captain (Robert Duvall), a leading tobacco manufacturer and the money-man behind the lobbyists, likes the idea and sends Nick to Hollywood to sponsor such a film. Nick’s ex-wife (Kim Dickens) is not pleased when he takes Joey along to show the kid how smoothly he operates–something he’s very proud of. In Hollywood Nick meets his amoral counterpoint in super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), head of Entertainment Global, who promises Nick to make smoking cigs in the pics cool again.
In the end, all the pic has left to peddle is its own amoral cleverness and that’s just not enough to cover up for its empty message and its inaccurate vituperative charges that all of the media is corrupt, that all politicians are ridiculous, and that the public can be manipulated at will. It cowardly lets those carrying such dangerous infomercial lies so gently off the hook. In fact, the surface characters are lionized for being so astute to make an easy buck off the backs of others and being sane enough to know how to make it in this ‘dog eat dog’ world. We are lectured that is something any sane person would do, if given the opportunity. The filmmaker doesn’t have the guts or insights or convictions to even come down on one side or the other in this ludicrous sophomoric debate he sets up. He then runs away from the moral implications of the argument by hiding behind a false sense of comedy. It’s the kind of film that filters in a libertarian viewpoint where the far left and the far right are on the same wave length (How sweet is that!).
REVIEWED ON 4/16/2006 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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