Movie Review >>
It should be noted that not one character smokes a cigarette onscreen in â€œThank You for Smoking,â€ the long-awaited film adaptation of Christopher Buckleyâ€™s satiric novel. The closest smoking encounter is when tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) reaches for a pack of smokes only to discover it’s empty â€“ a clear metaphor for the tobacco lobbyâ€™s strength.
First-time director Jason Reitman (who adapted the novel himself) is reaching for a deeper concept, a comment on the disintegration of debate and the trade-off of argument for manipulation in contemporary politics (and society in general). Reitman sees the tobacco lobby as an opening to a bigger, less tangible issue, and while he should be congratulated for his ambition, the execution sadly stumbles.
Naylor has lot on his plate as the premier lobbyist for a research organization propped up by Big Tobacco. He makes the rounds on talk shows, exchanges strategies and compares body counts with his buddies in the MOD (merchants of death) squad (the lovely Maria Bello for alcohol, the hilarious David Koechner for guns), makes deals to promote smoking on film with zany Hollywood agents (Rob Lowe), and competes in verbal battle with an overzealous senator (William H. Macy). Oh, and heâ€™s trying to be a good role model for his preteen son (Cameron Bright). Thatâ€™s only the startâ€”more complications arise by the frame.
Which is part of the problem â€“ Reitman has a lot of ground to cover in a limited amount of time (a good comedy should never run over 90 minutes), so every crazy character gets to make an entrance, be odd, and then maybe show up for a later cameo. Robert Duvall gets hardly any screen time as the tobacco maven the Captain, and it seems as if Reitman asked J.K. Simmons to reprise his â€œSpidermanâ€ Jonah Jameson role instead of find a new character for Naylorâ€™s boss B.R.
Reitman zigzags from one conflict to the next, using Buckleyâ€™s wacky characters as liftoff points for plot twists but never giving any one real depth. The rookie Reitman falls into a classic trap of the adaptation â€“ in a novel you can get away with pages and pages of backstory about the most insignificant characters. In a movie, however, you must focus on a central group of characters, truly bring them to life, and donâ€™t worry about the neurotic behavior of a mailroom clerk. No doubt, Reitman has left out numerous bits from Buckleyâ€™s novel, but what heâ€™s kept in has obviously overwhelmed him.
Because the characters are stretched so thin, Reitman canâ€™t pay enough attention to Eckhart as Naylor and his self realization, which is central to the theme Reitman is aiming for. A fantastic character actor, Eckhart can make you cringe or fall off your seat laughing, in this film usually at the same time. Naylor bluntly explains, â€œMichael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk.â€ And heâ€™s a great talker â€“ he whirls circles around his would-be detractors with frightening logic. Naylor puts it straight enough for his son: â€œIf I prove youâ€™re wrong, then I must be right.â€
Well, any nuanced individual who has studied or participated in debate knows that not true â€“ itâ€™s a terrible logical fallacy. But take a look at politics these days and you can see that attitude is running rampant like a sailor on leave. After years of lies and discrediting science, big tobacco is bankrupt â€“ everyone at the Institute for Tobacco Studies knows theyâ€™re attempting to illegally sell a highly addictive product to teenagers that will probably one day kill them. But damn the consequences â€“ this is a game, and Naylor is determined to win. Just because he likes a challenge, heâ€™s signed up with the underdog.
And on the other side of the field is Macy as Senator Finistirre, whose motives for curbing smoking seem to be winning another term and whose methods involve an over-the-top, overly large, grotesquely modified Jolly Roger for every pack of cigarettes. Although he markets himself as a peopleâ€™s champion, in private scenes heâ€™s shown as just as dirty a player as Naylor. Macy tactfully assumes the role and perhaps gives the most memorable performance.
But the filmâ€™s path is prickly, with a subplot involving the now-dying Marbolo Man (Sam Elliot) and a kidnapping derailing the story. Also, the most predictable bit involves Katie Holmes (as bland as ever) as a reporter who seduces Naylor for an expose â€“ the whole subplot feels horribly contrived mainly because of Holmes complete lack of talent.
Itâ€™s also too bad that Reitman canâ€™t balance out the jokes on Big Tobacco-thinking with the underlying theme of the death of debate â€“ the best lines in the film come at the expense of the industry. â€œWe don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes,â€ B.R. says at one point. â€œAnd they’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.â€
Still, the film is very funny and thought provoking without being preachy, which is a giant leap from most American satire. It comes down to Reitman being a rookie â€“ the kid has potential but this may have been a bit much for his first game in the majors. One canâ€™t help thinking that in the seasoned hands of a director like Robert Altman (â€œThe Playerâ€) â€œThank You for Smokingâ€ could have been the backhand slap of a satire it should be.