Thank You for Smoking
Directed by Jason Reitman
Thank You for Smoking skewers corporate America in a cute little satire about the double-talking lobbyists who spin everything in their favor. It's a shame the ending simply blows smoke.
A Day in the Life
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, Nurse Betty) is the kind of Ivy League playboy who could pick up any girl. As Nick describes himself, he takes things to the next level. He's a playboy on crack. That's an interesting choice of words, considering Nick's a vice president at the Academy of Tobacco Studies.
Nick's able to make a living off of his charm and good looks; it's his job to protect the tobacco industry and keep people smoking. That's no small feat, especially in today's climate of increasingly smoke-free environments.
So, leave it to Nick to appear on Joan Lunden's talk show and put a spin on things that would make the Tasmanian Devil dizzy. Joan's guest is a 15-year-old referred to as "Cancer Boy." As Nick sees it, if cigarettes killed the kid, his industry would be losing a good customer. The logic, then, is to keep Cancer Boy alive — and smoking.
Amazingly, Nick wins over Joan's audience, turning the tables and making it look like the Department of Health and Human Services, and not the tobacco industry, is on a genocide campaign.
Wherever he goes, Nick carries with him an arsenal of contorted thoughts, dubious facts, and manipulated stats, some of them provided by a German scientist who's studied the addictive nature of cigarettes and found them to be addiction-free. Nick points out in his voiceover that this scientist is so talented "he could disprove gravity."
The M.O.D. Squad
Thank You for Smoking is a smart, whimsical comedy that jabs at both liberals and conservatives, with Nick engaging in discussions, arguments, and negotiations with everybody from a Hollywood movie mogul (Rob Lowe, St. Elmo's Fire) to an ultra-conservative Vermont senator complete with Birkenstocks (William H. Macy, Fargo).
After a hard day at the office, it's time for Nick to hang out with his friends, sip a nice beverage, and talk shop.
Naturally, his friends are in the same line of work. One, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, The Cooler), represents the alcohol industry (according to Nick, her alcohol tolerance level is on par with that of Irish dock men). His other buddy, Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner, Anchorman) defends the firearms manufacturers.
Together, this threesome represents the Merchants of Death (the M.O.D. Squad) and things get testy when Nick asserts he has the toughest job of the three because of the sheer numbers of people that die from smoking cigarettes.
Ah. But Polly posits that defending alcohol and the birth defects that can result is no easy task. Nick relents and admits deformed kids are a tough topic to sweep under the rug.
Like Father, Like Son
In the movie's most dramatic subplot, "The Original Marlboro Man" (Sam Elliott, The Big Lebowski), diagnosed with cancer, receives a substantial cash "gift" from tobacco's godfather, a man who goes by the moniker "The Captain" (Robert Duvall, The Natural). It's up to Nick to deliver the gift in person, with his son, Joey, in tow for the educational experience of seeing his dad at work.
The movie's aim is to expose the double standards that can be found on both sides of the aisle and its tongue is firmly planted in its cheek. After all, that senator from Vermont is eager to stamp out smoking then turn around and promote the state's cheese. Cheese? That pack of artery-clogging cholesterol? Surely that's just as unhealthy as smoking.
It's all done with a wink and a smile, most of those courtesy of the perpetually gregarious Nick.
Along with a cast that takes the material and runs with it, Thank You for Smoking is a great piece of topical entertainment. The down side is that, in many respects, it doesn't go far enough with any conviction of its own and, as a result, most of this conviction-less confection slips from memory quicker than a thought in a crackhead's noggin.
Nonetheless, the movie is full of colorful characters. The screenplay, written by Jason Reitman, son of comedy director Ivan Reitman, in his feature-length directorial debut, is based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, son of legendary political writer William F. Buckley, Jr.
Joey (nicely performed by Cameron Bright, X-Men: The Last Stand) does learn quite a bit from his old man. For example, Nick tells his son, "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong." (Nick fails to mention, though, that you can also be dangerously counterproductive in the process.) Then there's that gem of a chat Nick gives to Joey's classmates at St. Euthanasius, wherein he explains the importance of questioning authority and thinking for yourself.
Perhaps Nick's "I'm never wrong" attitude was one of the things that brought his marriage to an end. Aside from his ex-wife, another person in Nick's life who doesn't always buy his spiel is named simply "B.R." (everybody who knew what "B.R." stood for died in combat). Played to the hilt by J.K. Simmons, this over-the-top kingpin of the M.O.D. squad is ever so reminiscent of another Simmons character, J. Jonah Jameson, the hyperactive editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man series.
All of the fast-talking finally catches up with Nick when an assassin attempts to snuff him out. A simple bullet to the head wouldn't be funny, so this assassin covers Nick from head to toe in nicotine patches.
It's a level of nicotine no non-smoker could've survived so, as the joke goes, smoking saved Nick's life. That's the bright side. But the dark side is he'll never be able to smoke again; doing so would put him in a paralytic state.
As this episode in the misadventures of Nick Naylor comes to an end, Nick takes on another cause and everybody more or less has a happy ending.
While the movie ranks high on amiability, the ending still comes across like an artificial sweetener. It's as if the preceding 90 minutes were all a build up to… nothing much. But surely Nick would make an argument to the contrary.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.