'Thank You For Smoking' pokes fun at tobacco industry
Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Buckley's 1994 satirical novel about the tobacco industry and the government's ham-handed attempts to rein it in, is hilarious.
But it's more than that. It spares no targets and is unflinching in exposing the hypocrisy of Big Tobacco's efforts to solve its major industry dilemma -- its product kills its customers. (No scientific proof, as any good tobacco employee will tell you. Please ignore the legal settlements.) Buckley skewers everyone. The book is a fun read, but it's also brilliant and pretty close to important.
The movie version of Thank You for Smoking settles for just being fun. But it's a lot of fun.
Director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (Ivan Reitman's son) doesn't dumb things down in his first feature so much as he speeds things up. No one expects a movie to supply the layer of details a novel can, and Reitman wisely doesn't try. Instead, he relies on an excellent cast to deliver on a can't-miss premise; when real life is so absurd, the satire's easy.
Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for the fictional Academy of Tobacco Studies. Nick's job, as he explains to his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), requires a certain moral flexibility. Nick's not stupid, far from it. But he has justified his job to himself, and he's exceedingly good at it -- his expert performance on a talk show hosted by Joan Lunden, besting anti-tobacco crusaders and even winning over a 15-year-old former smoker brutally known as "Cancer Boy" before a television audience, is proof of that.
Particularly miffed is Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy, reliably solid). He berates an underling for choosing the boy -- not because he was sick. Because he wasn't sick enough.
That's a pretty good indication of where this movie is coming from. All the characters navigate through a thick fog of cynicism. A funny fog, which helps.
Nick's career is going great. He hopes to testify before Finistirre's committee, and his idea to win back young smokers by bribing Hollywood to have actors smoke on-screen again (the good guys, that is) is a hit with his psycho boss, BR (J.K. Simmons, nuts and loving it), and The Captain (Robert Duvall), the old-school Southern gentleman who runs the company. Nick enjoys his MOD -- Merchants of Death -- lunches with fellow lobbyists Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), who represents the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), who shills for guns. Nothing to improve the appetite like a little good-natured one-upmanship about how many people your product kills.
Nick's going to be the subject of a profile by a Washington reporter (Katie Holmes), and he's heading to California to meet with super agent Jeff Megall (an out-and-out hilarious, deadpan Rob Lowe). Can anything derail this happy life?
What do you think?
Thank You for Smoking is often laugh-out-loud funny, though, like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the number of jokes you laugh at will probably depend upon your level of familiarity with the duplicity that government, Hollywood and huge corporations employ as they go about their business.
The flaw is that the movie doesn't amount to much in the end. More than in most films, the supporting cast here exists as a backdrop against which Nick's development is measured; you don't expect a lot of growth there. But Nick is stagnant as well. He has an epiphany, but in the end he's left much as we found him. At least we're still laughing.