Thank You for Smoking / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()
I stood before the urinal at the theater after leaving Thank You for Smoking, the Kingston Trio’s catchy, minor-key “Greenback Dollar” still jangling in my head. I realized the guy standing at the urinal next to mine was actually singing the song softly, not whistling or humming, but actually singing it. And I put aside the inherent fear a man feels when someone starts singing while he’s urinating because, well, I felt the same way. I’d spent most of the film replaying the opening credits’ “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette,” by Tex Williams, only to have it replaced by the Kingston Trio tune from the movie’s closing credits. In fact, the music was as much on my mind as the film’s brilliant humor and razor satire. I walked out feeling good, despite (or perhaps because of) spending the last two hours with a politically incorrect, unapologetic spin doctor who lobbies for Big Tobacco and whose personality doesn’t change one iota from the first frame to the last. Thank You for Smoking is a sharply observed, brutally funny, and genuinely enjoyable film that uses comedy to make the kinds of points that can bog down serious dramas. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t come along too often, but when it does, we should all be thankful.
Written and directed by Jason Reitman and adapted from satirist Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel, the film follows the exploits of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), vice president of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a company founded and funded by a conglomerate of tobacco companies to spin the truth about the effects of cigarettes. Eckhart is probably best known for his role’s in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, as well as Steven Soderbergh’s violently overrated Erin Brockovich, but Nick is the role he was born to play. In Nick’s own words, he doesn’t have a law degree or an M.D., but “a bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names.” And that guy who always gets the girl? “I’m him. On crack,” Nick says. Eckhart brings a wide-eyed charm to the cocky, arrogant huckster; brimming with enthusiasm and innocence, you know he can’t really be trusted, but it’s such a pleasure having him to lie to you it doesn’t matter.
His job aside, Nick’s an all-American guy: Great apartment, ex-wife Jill (Kim Dickens), son Joey (Cameron Bright), and a mortgage. A loving father, Nick even speaks at Joey’s career day, offering a rebuttal to a young girl whose mother claims cigarettes are lethal by telling the girl her mother “doesn’t sound like a credible expert.” The scene sets the tone for the film, along with a brilliant appearance by Nick on Joan Lunden’s talk show in which he says that it’s in Big Tobacco’s interests to keep a young cancer patient alive so that he can remain a loyal customer. Nick says it so guilelessly it’s almost easy to miss the bigger point, namely, that his statement, played here for laughs, mirrors the real-life strategies of Big Tobacco. A melodrama about the dangers of smoking would be boring because it wouldn’t tell the audience anything they didn’t already know, but a satire like Reitman’s film can get close to the truth by letting us laugh at it. Mike Nichols used the same techniques in Primary Colors, as did Barry Levinson in Wag the Dog, and the similarities are striking: Substitute Big Tobacco for your respective fictional/real commanders-in-chief.
Things are going well for Nick until Sen. Finistirre (William H. Macy) starts to drum up support for legislation that would slap a giant “Poison” label on every pack of cigarettes, complete with skull and crossbones. Nick’s boss, B.R. (J.K. Simmons), sends Nick to Hollywood to set up deals to put cigarettes back in movies. As B.R. says of cigarette sales, “They’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.” In addition to the movies, Nick has marching orders from the Captain (Robert Duvall), one of the last surviving “heroes” of Big Tobacco, to pay off Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), the now-retired Marlboro Man who’s threatening to make things unpleasant for his former employers. Nick decided to take Joey with him to Los Angeles, since Joey’s begun to take a shine to his dad’s profession, despite Nick’s warnings that being a lobbyist requires a kind of “moral flexibility.”
The film is fantastic throughout, but Nick’s meeting with Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) goes beyond humor into the realm of sublime entertainment. Jeff and Nick hash out plans for a futuristic sci-fi actioner in which stars Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones will smoke in space, and Nick wants to create a special brand of cigarette to sell as a movie tie-in. Jeff is a cross between Ari Gold and Kwai Chang Caine, an egotistical Zen master with a penchant for kimonos who only sleeps one day a week so he can maximize business. Eckhart and Lowe are both in top form, and it’s clear that Reitman is well acquainted with the inside world of Hollywood power players, which translates perfectly to the Beltway, which is just L.A. with bad weather.
Nick’s also being interviewed for a profile by local reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), whom he soon beds in what most newspaper editors would consider a pretty serious ethical misstep. In Reitman’s world, the reporters are just as crooked as the lobbyists, though while Heather is loyal to the paper, Nick’s only allegiance is to his own pride in winning. In fact, the only people with whom Nick is completely honest are his two friends, Polly (Maria Bello), a lobbyist for alcohol companies, and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), a gun company rep who wears multiple American flag pins on his lapel. Their weekly lunches are the only time any of them can speak freely about their jobs or their open competition to rack up more deaths, which Nick is handily winning. Koechner is hilarious, playing the kind of bloviating salesman who used to offer toasts to Bill Brasky on “Saturday Night Live.” At one point he orders a slice of apple pie topped with a melted slice of cheese, rebuffing Nick’s obvious distaste with a simple, “It’s American.”
The film proceeds at full speed to skewer every stereotype it can get its hands on, though it leans toward the slightly sentimental toward the end as Nick tries to set a better example for his son. Perhaps Reitman is channeling the influence of his father, director Ivan Reitman, who championed Bill Murray as the likable loser/slacker of his generation in Stripes and Ghostbusters. Jason Reitman stays true to Buckley’s premise, though: Nick remains committed to winning and unapologetic about fronting for Big Tobacco. He doesn’t persuade the viewer that smoking is good, but that’s beside the point. The purpose of the story is to show that Naylor excels at his job and loves every minute of it, and in that, Reitman succeeds. In Nick’s words, “Michael Jordan plays basketball; Charles Manson kills people; I talk.” We all have our talents, Nick says, and Reitman has definitely found his.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.