Thank You for Smoking
2006Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, William H. Macy
aybe it’s a seasonal thing. Last fall and winter, as the temperature dropped, the snow began to fall, and the darkness came earlier and earlier, moviegoers were treated to a series of intelligent, exceptionally well-made, award-worthy political films (Syriana, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck) that attempted to educate us or snap us out of our complacent torpor. As good as these movies were, they all carried with them a seriousness of purpose well-matched to the elements. Now, as spring arrives, we’re treated to a political satire so light and breezy it might as well float away on its own sense of style. Thank You for Smoking takes its subject matter, which has in other contexts been mined for devastating dramatic effect, and presents it almost as a trifle. This movie wins you over by looking at its world with a wry, knowing smile, and inviting the audience to join in on the joke. But what if, to paraphrase Morrissey, that joke isn’t funny anymore? Best not to ask such questions–this movie is here to please, damn it.
Smoking doesn’t so much analyze its cynicism as embrace it in a bear hug for all the world to see. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a tobacco industry spokesman and lobbyist who attacks his job with a zest and panache somewhat admirable for a man thought of by most (including his nemesis, a United States senator played with finger-wagging liberal earnestness by William H. Macy) as the moral equivalent of John Wayne Gacy. Nick possesses a silver-tongued glibness perfect for ten-second TV sound bites that he adeptly deploys in the service of Big Tobacco, able to claim with a perfectly straight face and no small amount of charm that the link between lung cancer and cigarettes “hasn’t been scientifically established.” Every weekend, Nick makes it a point to have dinner with the spokesmen for the alcohol lobby and the gun lobby, where the three of them, who cheerfully dub themselves “the Merchants of Death,” challenge each other over who represents the industry responsible for the highest death tolls (and it’s Tobacco by a landslide!).
This film, as you might have gathered by now, isn’t really about smoking per se, but rather about the culture of spin that pervades modern America, and particularly political life. In that way, it resembles Wag the Dog, the movie about a political hack and a Hollywood producer who team up to “fake” a war that will ensure the President’s re–election. Both movies take the lovable rogue route, featuring charismatic leads (Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog) who the audience is forced to like almost in spite of itself, and both seem willing to eschew truly devastating political or cultural critiques in favor of a somewhat scattershot, but effective, winking satire. Which is fine by me, I hasten to add—not all satires need to be Dr. Strangelove to work as effective comedies, but it does underscore why Smoking, for all its razor-sharp dialogue and intelligent wit, lacks a certain depth and acuity of focus.
Some of this can surely be explained by the youth and inexperience of the writer/director, Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan. Reitman shows a real gift for dialogue and comic tone, and probably has a strong career in front of him. But his film, at times, suffers from too many moving parts. Consider the bizarre subplot in which Nick is kidnapped and thrown into a van by a bunch of anti-smoking zealots determined to teach him a lesson. After Nick (barely) survives the incident, the subplot is immediately dropped, never to be so much as spoken about again. Or you may puzzle, as I did, over the occasional hints that Nick is suffering from a crisis of conscience, particularly in regard to his young son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who Nick realizes is not receiving the best fatherly guidance in the world (Joey: “Dad, why is the American government the best government in the world?” Nick: “Because of our endless appeals system.”). Apart from a brief and thoroughly unconvincing reference towards the end to Nick’s slight moral growth, the film seems to make a ham-handed and unsure effort at justifying Nick’s complete amorality within the context of a “freedom of personal choice” framework. One of the interesting things about Smoking is the way it seems as fascinated by, and even admiring of, the Washington culture of spin as it is repelled and amused by it, which ultimately limits the internal coherence of the movie. The big “moment of truth” between Nick and the tobacco-hating senator at a committee hearing only ends up with a rather clichéd and disappointingly underdeveloped appeal from Nick for the importance of individual responsibility.
Which is not to say that this is not a funny film. On the contrary, it’s often quite hilarious, particularly in the segment where Nick flies to Hollywood to try and find a way of getting more smoking into movies. Rob Lowe makes a priceless appearance as a Michael Ovitz-like superagent, combining a willingness to do anything for money with an oh-so-trendy fascination with all things Asian that reflects Reitman’s glee at being able to get in some Woody Allen-style bashing of La-La Land and its ego-fueled eccentricities. Or witness the interaction between Nick and Heather, the smoking hot reporter (Katie Holmes) who’s more than willing to sleep with her interview subject in exchange for a few tidbits of information she can learn via pillow talk. Everybody’s in the self-promotion business, the film argues, and it’s foolish for anyone to try and claim exemption, especially in a power-based city like Washington. It’s difficult to imagine a film making this point more effectively, or more entertainingly, than Thank You for Smoking. It’s only the script’s unwillingness to probe further that marks the difference between a good satire and a great one.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-04-11