Regardless of what its overbearing satirical title wants you to believe, there is no smoking in Thank You For Smoking. This might seem odd at first and might let the film appear less satirical than it could be, but director Jason Reitman doesn’t want to teach you a lesson about smoking. If viewers left this film thinking, “Wow, smoking is awesome”, the real meaning unfortunately went spiraling over their heads.
Thank You For Smoking is about life underneath the constant eye of spin; politicians, lobbyists, news anchors, all spinning the truth for their best interests as the rest of the world gets caught in its whirlpool of nonsense. Does truth matter anymore, or are we perfectly happy with accepting what seems capable to us? These are the questions Thank You For Smoking asks and . . . doesn’t exactly answer.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the most hated man in America. A fast talking lobbyist for big tobacco, Naylor is used to insults and death threats being hurled his way, but takes it all in stride with a cocky sense of self-righteousness. Sure, he’s spinning the truth to cover lies, but who cares? He’s the master at running his mouth, spitting out responses so fast it makes politicians speechless. After all, according to Naylor, everyone needs a defender, even the undefendable.
The film begins with Naylor appearing on a Jenny Jones-esque talk show with several anti-smoking advocators, including a young boy dying of cancer. The odds are obviously stacked against him, but Naylor is able to win over the audience when he deals a hand of twisted logic: “How would big tobacco profit off the loss of this young man? It’s in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking.” The audience responds with an enlightened applause.
When he’s not out manipulating the public, he’s working with colleagues to think of new strategies to increase smoking’s appeal. In one scene, Naylor’s boss (J.K. Simmons) angrily yells as his workers, asking why cigarette numbers are down: “It’s cool, it’s available, it’s addictive. It practically does the work for us.” Naylor suggests they bring smoking back to films and steer movies away from the current cinematic “RAV” smokers (Russians, Arabs and villains).
The funniest bits of Thank You For Smoking comes from the MOD squad, aka the “Merchants of Death”, a group that consists of lobbyists for other deadly corporate companies, such as alcohol and firearms. Naylor meets with them regularly to discuss enlightening topics, such as who has the highest death rate, whose spin is the largest, and other tactics that would leave the public horrified. Things also get a little steamy when young reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) shows up and begins to pry into Naylor’s head, using her lady bits to get him to spill important information.
Unfortunately, the main bulk of the film deals with Naylor’s relationship with his son (Cameron Bright) and how Naylor deals with justifying his line of work, while still trying to teach his son important lessons and morals. It’s clear that Reitman tried to put a human face on Naylor, portraying him as fully dimensional and emotional. But the problem is Naylor doesn’t need a human face; we love him the minute he offers us a light. The fact the audience could fall for a sleazy big business pusher is enough to drive home the true gist of our society’s take on deception. But the Hallmark scenes only slow things down and become slow-down road bumps for all the speeding fun. For a satire about spin, it’s unneeded and keeps the film from having a real kick in the gut. In other words, the gritty satire has been watered down and sprinkled with little flowers.
On the plus side, for a film dominated by supporting actors, the performances keep the film afloat. Maria Bello and David Koechner are perfect henchmen for the MOD squad, while Rob Lowe is delightfully narcissistic as an eccentric Hollywood producer who aids Naylor in bringing the sexy back in cigarettes. Adam Brody is also flawless as the smartass producer’s assistant; the kind of guy who would ask for a high five after firing you. Holmes is terribly miscast as Holloway and her scenes are strange and unlikely. I highly doubt Naylor, a quick-witted, fast talking schemer, would fall dumbstruck for Joey friggin’ Potter.
The DVD contains the usual extras, including a disappointing featurette on the media and spin. This segment, while interesting, is only a few minutes long, but still managed to hit some of the punches the movie was aiming for but missed. Perhaps I was foolish to expect a satirical kick in the groin, a la Network. After all, Thank You For Smoking is smart, charming, funny, much like its leading man. But it’s too polite.