Thank You for Smoking

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the “yuppie Mephistopheles” at the center of Thank You for Smoking, brings Americans the message that smoking cigarettes is about freedom of choice, not about health issues. He may even believe it himself, but one can’t be sure. A tobacco-lobby spokesman with the charisma of Satan and morals to match, Nick loves what he does — in theory, anyway — and the beauty of the film is that we understand why he loves it. A genius at debate and misdirection, Nick prides himself on spinning verbal webs; he doesn’t actually have much emotionally invested in tobacco, but they sure pay him well, and he’s the lobby’s top dog. And he loves the challenge of defending the indefensible.

Thank You for Smoking is a fast, bubbly satire that does full justice to the addictive Christopher Buckley novel it’s based on — a story neither liberal nor conservative, like Citizen Ruth, the last great American satire. It’s not as nasty or as complex as that film — it skims the surface, but in this case the surface is a pretty fun place to be. In his travels, Nick runs across a beehive of colorful characters, the most interesting being his fellow lobbyists and friends Polly (Maria Bello), who represents the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), who shills for guns. The trio call themselves the MOD Squad — Merchants of Death. They sit huddled in a red cave of a pub and trade war stories and morbid statistics. Somehow, we sympathize with the rotten day at work they’ve all had.

Out in Los Angeles, Nick courts Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (a fatuous, kimono-wearing Rob Lowe) to get him to persuade movie stars to smoke in movies and make the habit sexy again. He also bears an attache case of hundred-dollar bills for Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), a former Marlboro Man now dying of lung cancer and using his last breaths to excoriate the tobacco industry. Nick, trying to hold onto his job, is desperate to get good p.r. for smoking, and though it’s not a noble goal, we enjoy watching Nick at work — he’s smart, and happy about being smart, and Aaron Eckhart makes him just about impossible to dislike. Going back to In the Company of Men almost a decade ago, Eckhart has a palpable talent for morally slippery characters you hate to love.

The movie has been directed with deadpan fizz (many freeze-frames catching characters with goofy expressions) by Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman — who, sadly, hasn’t made a film in years as good as his son’s debut here. Characters like the anti-smoking Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) are introduced like the political specimens-under-glass they are, while others like seductive reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) — who lures Nick into ill-advised candor — or the tobacco kingpin “The Captain” (Robert Duvall in a fine great-old-man turn) get properly Hollywood treatment. Reitman also doesn’t become part of the problem: nobody smokes in the movie, though almost every character did in the book. Anyway, the movie is less about smoking than about a man who’s the best at what he does, though what he does isn’t particularly admirable.

I could’ve done without Nick’s son (Cameron Bright), whom Nick carts around L.A., hoping to reconnect with him. In the book, Buckley kept the kid offstage (and also made much more of the subplot in which Nick is abducted by anti-smoking zealots); Reitman writes several scenes in which Nick and the boy sit down and talk about proper debate tactics. It’s not bad as such things go — Nick doesn’t talk down to the kid — but it steals away time better spent listening to Nick’s boss (J.K. Simmons in full bluster) sound off, or sitting with the MOD Squad in their tight social exile, or hearing Robert Duvall wrap his creaky Southern accent around cynical remarks that pop liberal pieties like balloons.

I wish Thank You for Smoking weren’t so afraid of losing the audience; I wish it had more faith in Nick’s ability to persuade us, if not of the worth of his cause, then of his worth as the anti-hero of a satire. Still, the film is remarkable for what it does do, and it’s refreshing to see a lead character take such pleasure in his own intelligence and rhetoric. We enjoy the audacity of Nick’s claims and the skill with which he delivers them. That’s enough for me.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comedy, one of the year's best, satire

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