Personally, I am an enthusiast of satirical films which don’t necessarily condemn the subject of the satire. Of course, it’s all up to the subjective perceptions of the viewer, but a film like “Thank You for Smoking”, with its superficially audible overtones of “everyone in the tobacco industry is a soulless, money grubbing murderer”, really never points a finger or makes an overt moral judgment. It just tells the story of tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) and his preternatural ability to distort and even re-invent established truths in order to sway public opinion. His tobacco cohorts are exaggerated, yes, as is their fickle profiteering off of death and the like, but I never felt I was supposed to hate smoking or the business behind it. And who really wants to watch more people whining about cigarettes anyways? Light ’em if you got ’em I say; everybody needs a good vice.
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, and adapted and directed by Jason Reitman, “Thank You for Smoking” begins with Naylor on a daytime talk show convincing the audience that the tobacco industry is passionately dedicated to funding research and truly concerned about the health of the public at large. Despite Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre’s (William H. Macy) ploy to unnerve Naylor by having chemotherapy ridden “cancer boy” as part of the show, Naylor is still able to win over the audience and instill trust with semantic acrobatics and his symmetrical smile.
Here we see the real social commentary being put forth: the American public can be given years of comprehensive research, death, suffering and facts to inform us of the danger of a certain behavior, but we don’t respond immediately to science as we do to attractive people delivering mellifluously assertive speeches.
Naylor works this aforementioned fact to his and his industry’s gain, becoming hated, though listened to by many, and acknowledged as the “face” of tobacco. His counterparts in media spin are the self-proclaimed “Merchants of Death”, consisting of Naylor, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) as the spokesperson for alcohol, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) for firearms. They convene every week for an expensive meal, nihilistically compare the death rates for which they are responsible, laugh about trifling matters like the complaints of the fetal alcohol association, and generally paint a damning image of white America.
And again, where you could take these meetings as a condemnation on the savagery of their respective industries, I see it as more a mirror for ourselves, as representatives like these would not exist in the first place if we didn’t listen, or rather if we did listen when someone first told us cigarettes are bad.
Aside from all of the culturally philosophical issues the film raises, it still manages to be quite humorous in a politically incorrect way, has a cast of memorable characters, and maintains its altitude just when you think it is sinking into melodrama. Speaking on the latter, Naylor not only has a high stress job that comes with the benefits of constant death threats, but he is also your now typical 21st century divorcee, living in an apartment while his wife gets the house, majority custody of the kids, and ironically enough, a doctor for a second husband. This dimension allows for the character to have an emotional life, and the relationship he develops with his son throughout their adventures is heartfelt and sincere, just like he is sincere about his work, in spite of its devious implications.
The plot takes Naylor all over the country, bribing the lung cancer suffering ex-Marlboro man (Sam Elliot) not to speak out against tobacco, propositioning eccentric, kimono wearing Hollywood kingpin Jeff Megall (a great Rob Lowe) on the reintroduction of cigarettes into films, and speaking with “The Captain” (Robert Duvall) about the virtues of the industry. During all of this, Naylor eff’s the wrong woman, seductive reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), who ends up acquiring all of his secrets and publishing them to the world.
As Naylor, Eckhart is smooth, handsome, charming, vulnerable and nurturing, and he commands the film. The supporting cast does a fine job, especially J.K. Simmons as Naylor’s cartoonishly offensive, ex-Vietnam vet boss “BR”. The film is high paced and full of fork tongued, ear catching dialogue. If you are tired of all the gross political ads running 24/7 on every channel for mid-term elections, “Thank You for Smoking” might be a good remedy.
Jason Reitman (director) / Jason Reitman (screenplay), Christopher Buckley (novel)
CAST: Aaron Eckhart …. Nick Naylor
Maria Bello …. Polly Bailey
Cameron Bright …. Joey Naylor
Adam Brody …. Jack
Sam Elliott …. Lorne Lutch
Katie Holmes …. Heather Holloway
David Koechner …. Bobby Jay Bliss
Rob Lowe …. Jeff Megall
William H. Macy …. Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre
J.K. Simmons …. Budd ‘BR’ Rohrabacher