Thank You for Smoking


Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Thank You for Smoking
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) lives a charmed life: he has a great job that he is good at and he likes. His 12-year old son, Joey (Cameron Bright), adores his dad and this is what is causing cracks to form in Nick’s perfect career. You see, Nick is the uber-spokesman for Big Tobacco and he is in charge of putting the PR spin on a new campaign that would bring cigarettes back to the movies. And attract, you guessed it, the 12-year old smoker market in “Thank You for Smoking.”

Robin:
Nick’s philosophy is, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” This has held him in good stead for his many years as the spokesman for a company whose product is deadly but “cool, available and addictive.” Now, though, he finds himself at a crossroad of life as his son, Joey, approaches the age where he will become one of Nick’s PR targets. But, you’ve got to work if you want to eat and Nick throws himself into his latest project to resurrect cigarettes in the movies. This results in the ad exec becoming the target for a militant anti-smoking group.

Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) adapts the satiric novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F.) and comes up with a dark comedy that firmly holds tongue in cheek throughout. The result is a film that is mildly amusing and entertaining, with Nick making the most outrageous arguments in favor of cigarettes – and getting away with it. It is a good role for badly-coiffed Eckhart who makes you believe that he believes in what he’s selling. The satire continues during his lunchtime meetings with the other members of the “Mod Squad” – firearms proponent Bobby Jay Bliss (David Keochner) and alcohol advocate Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) – as they discuss ways to sell even more of their deadly wares.

The problem I have with “Thank You for Smoking” is that it tries too hard to be darkly funny and the messages it carries tend to hit you over the head too many times trying to prove its point – cigarettes (or guns, or ooze, or toxic waste, or whatever) can kill you. Once this point is established it becomes less and less necessary to repeat it. As such, things take their time wrapping up with the non-PC ending – something unexpected for once from Hollywood.

There is a big cast of veteran character actors playing the various small roles in “Thank You for Smoking.” Robert Duvall cameos as the Captain, the big-shot owner of Big Tobacco; Rob Lowe has a great time chewing the scenery as Nick’s unscrupulous colleague, Jeff Megall; William H. Macy plays Senator Ortolan Finistirre whose political agenda is to remove cigarettes in old movies; the ever reliable J.K. Simmons is used well as Nick’s boss, BR; Sam Elliot plays the melancholy part as Lorne Lutch, the iconic Marlboro Man.” Others include Bello, Koechner, Cameron Bright (who is turning into a good young actor) and Dennis Miller and Joan Lunden as themselves. It is a richly populated film but with a cast underutilized by the two-dimensional material.

Thank You for Smoking” tries very hard but fails to succeed in creating a biting satire. It’s a good showcase for the talented Aaron Eckhart but little more than a paycheck for the rest. I give it a C+.

Laura:
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, "In the Company of Men," "Suspect Zero") is a tobacco lobbyist who describes himself as 'the guy who always gets the girl - on crack.'  His amazing gift of spin has made him not only successful politically, but with his young son Joey (Cameron Bright, "Birth," "Running Scared"), whose embarrassment over his dad's profession has been turned into awe.  Dad's technique is to prove himself right on one debate point, making his opponent wrong, a tactic that let's him keep a straight face as he says "Thank You for Smoking."

Aaron Eckhart is fleet of foot and prolific with patter as the aptly named Naylor, but his high wire act ultimately cannot hide the fact that writer/director Jason Reitman's feature debut (based on the Christopher Buckley novel) is as glib as Naylor's tongue.  This breezy satire features a great cast and more than a few laughs, but it lacks bite.

We're introduced to Nick on the Joan Lunden show, where he turns the tables on Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre's (William H. Macy, "Spartan," "Cellular," "Sahara") aide Ron Goode (Todd Louiso, "High Fidelity") by arguing the politicians have more to gain from the eventual death of the young cancer patient on stage with them than he does ('I'd be losing a customer!').  He finally wins his son's admiration by peppering him with some outrageous ideas on how to b.s. his way through an essay on why America's government is the world's best and then convinces the boy's mom, wife Jill (Kim Dickens, HBO's "Deadwood"), to let him accompany dad on a trip to California.  Joey's admiration grows as dad communes with big time Hollywood agents (a hilarious Rob Lowe, "Austin Powers in Goldmember," TV's "The West Wing") and the dying Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott, "Off the Map," "Hulk"), but a death threat delivered live with Dennis Miller shows a chink in Naylor's armor.  Then Washington Probe reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes, "Batman Returns") publishes the expose which reveals what makes Nick tick.

"Thank You for Smoking" delivers its most vitriolic volley in its opening gambit, then soft-pedals its satire for the rest of its running time, leaning on its (mostly) capable cast to keep the laughs coming.  And many of them do.  Nick is part of his own Greek chorus, a triumvirate who call themselves the MOD squad because they are merchants of death, each affiliated with an arm of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, "A History of Violence") can drink anyone under the table so strong is her resistance to alcohol and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"), who is gung-ho for guns.  These three's luncheons are like little comic respites dotted throughout the film.  Also fun are effusive character actor J.K. Simmons ("Spider-Man 2") as Naylor's boss BR and Robert Duvall ("Open Range," "Secondhand Lions") as the Captain, the titan of the tobacco industry (although he could have borrowed a page from Gene Hackman's inveterate smoker in "Heartbreakers").  In a small role, Adam Brody ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith") find the perfect note of chirpy fervor as Lowe's Hollywood assistant.  Only Katie Holmes, whose promise seems to have evaporated since her association with Cruise, feels all wrong as a seductive siren trading sex for secrets.

Reitman sets up a couple of particularly amusing sight gags, even though neither is the slightest bit original.  Liberal Vermont Senator Finistirre is found crowded out at his a desk by novelty bottles of maple syrup, his white-socked feet clad in Birkenstocks.  Nick and Joey await their appointment at Entertainment Global Operations (EGO) watching the large screen projection of a killer whale taking out a sea lion in its Hollywood lobby. These scenes at least provide a visual jolt of humor, before we realize how easy the target whereas Nick's grand innovation - to bring back the allure of smoking by reestablishing it on the big screen with Hollywood stars - is DOA in a climate that has been actively stamping out that kind of behavior out for decades now.  The MOD Squad's competitive behavior provides the film's darkest humor, but it also implies an ardor for his job that is not supported by Nick's oft-repeated defense of having to pay a mortgage.  And while Nick's penultimate fate is somewhat ironically satisfying, his comeback is toothless - where it should trump what's come before it folds weakly.

"Thank You for Smoking" will certainly entertain but it's nowhere as thought provoking as it seems to think it is.  Politically incorrect humor does not automatically equal smart satire.

B-
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