Thank You for Smoking
George S. Kaufman famously said that satire is what closes on Saturday night, and Hollywood seems to have taken his advice to heart. Good satire is even rarer in movies nowadays than musicals and Westerns. Satire is not to be confused with parody, which is much more common and probably easier to pull off. Galaxy Quest was a parody, and a good one. Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, on the other hand, is satire—sharp, stinging and delicious.
Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, spokesman for the so-called Academy of Tobacco Studies. It’s a high-sounding name, but it’s really just a front for the tobacco industry, and the only thing the people there seem to study is ways to make their products look good. Nick is the industry’s front man, and he’s great at it—handsome, glib and oozing sincerity with every spin. Appearing on Joan Lunden’s talk show in the opening scene, he’s attacked as “the yuppie Mephistopheles” and confronted with Robin, a 15-year-old cancer victim. Unfazed, and against all odds, Nick aggressively turns the tables on his accusers. Why would the tobacco industry want to kill him, Nick asks, when “it’s in our best interest to keep Robin alive—and smoking?” On the contrary, Nick charges, it’s the anti-smoking forces who want Robin dead, to advance their own propaganda campaign.
Nick is nobody to mess with, that’s for sure—as prissy, Birkenstock-wearing Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) learns the hard way when he calls Nick to testify over the senator’s bill to add a skull and crossbones to every pack of cigarettes. Nick points out that Finistirre himself is in thrall to an industry that’s flooding America with “artery-clogging Vermont cheddar cheese.” While the senator stammers impotently, Nick marches triumphantly out of the hearing room to a lunch where he swaps boasts with his fellow members of the MOD (“Merchants of Death”) Squad, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), who represents alcohol, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), firearms.
Even Nick’s son Joey (Cameron Bright, who seems to be everywhere these days, like a male Dakota Fanning) can’t help but admire the old man when he addresses Joey’s class about his line of work. “My mommy says cigarettes kill,” says one little girl. “Is your mommy a doctor?” Nick asks, smiling kindly. “No.” “A scientist? Then she doesn’t really sound like a competent authority, does she?”
Nick’s smile never wavers. Not when he’s cross-examining the little girl, not when he meets with super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) to enlist Hollywood’s help in making cigarettes cool again, and not when he’s sent to persuade former Marlboro Man Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott) to drop his anti-tobacco campaign. Not even when he meets—and beds—crusading reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), who’s writing an exposé on him. But Nick is about to learn that his personal charm can carry him only so far.
Writer-director Jason Reitman is the 29-year-old son of Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters and Dave), and this, his first feature film, is adapted from the novel by Christopher Buckley (the son of conservative icon William F. Buckley). Considering that Reitman’s six previous films were all shorts ranging from four to 20 minutes in length, he handles the long form with surprising facility. Thank You for Smoking sprints through 92 minutes smoothly, and Reitman’s expert cast stands him in good stead (only Holmes seems a little out of her league, like a high-school kid playing with the pros).
Of course, Buckley has given him some good material to work with. The names alone are a rich source of humor: Nick Naylor, Ortolan Finistirre and Jeff Megall. And the dialogue is peppered with tasty zingers. When Joey asks his dad why America has the best form of government, Nick replies without hesitation, “Because of our endless appeals system.”
True, the movie, and Buckley’s book, take aim at some sitting ducks—tobacco, Hollywood, lobbyists, politicians and the PC police. But hey, with one bull’s eye after another, we can admire the marksmanship even against easy targets.