Thank You for Smoking

Movie Review >>

Thank You for Not Smoking photo

It should be noted that not one character smokes a cigarette onscreen in “Thank You for Smoking,” the long-awaited film adaptation of Christopher Buckley’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 – a clear metaphor for the tobacco lobby’s strength.

Thank You for Smoking Poster
Thank You for
Smoking

(Fox Searchlight)
Rated: R
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
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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 he’s trying to be a good role model for his preteen son (Cameron Bright). That’s only the start—more complications arise by the frame.

Which is part of the problem – 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 “Spiderman” Jonah Jameson role instead of find a new character for Naylor’s boss B.R.

Reitman zigzags from one conflict to the next, using Buckley’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 – 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 don’t worry about the neurotic behavior of a mailroom clerk. No doubt, Reitman has left out numerous bits from Buckley’s novel, but what he’s kept in has obviously overwhelmed him.

Because the characters are stretched so thin, Reitman can’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, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk.” And he’s a great talker – he whirls circles around his would-be detractors with frightening logic. Naylor puts it straight enough for his son: “If I prove you’re wrong, then I must be right.”

Well, any nuanced individual who has studied or participated in debate knows that not true – it’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 – everyone at the Institute for Tobacco Studies knows they’re attempting to illegally sell a highly addictive product to teenagers that will probably one day kill them. But damn the consequences – this is a game, and Naylor is determined to win. Just because he likes a challenge, he’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 people’s champion, in private scenes he’s shown as just as dirty a player as Naylor. Macy tactfully assumes the role and perhaps gives the most memorable performance.

But the film’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 – the whole subplot feels horribly contrived mainly because of Holmes complete lack of talent.

It’s also too bad that Reitman can’t balance out the jokes on Big Tobacco-thinking with the underlying theme of the death of debate – the best lines in the film come at the expense of the industry. “We don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes,” B.R. says at one point. “And they’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.”

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 – the kid has potential but this may have been a bit much for his first game in the majors. One can’t help thinking that in the seasoned hands of a director like Robert Altman (“The Player”) “Thank You for Smoking” could have been the backhand slap of a satire it should be.

2 Comments

  1. Could not possibly disagree with you more. Reitman’s refusal to spiral the movie into a simple Big Tobacco ‘satire’ is what makes this movie refreshing. It was neither Reitman’s nor Buckley’s intent to make some statement about smoking, other than that it has become a black hole of social spin where the ability to make one’s own decision in life seems to have been lost. You seem to be looking for some vast character-driven film when in fact, at best, “Thank You” is just a bittingly funny, thought provoking parable about learning how to stop the spin long enough to think for yourself.

  2. Wow, sounds like a cool movie, can’t wait to see it. Reitman is really talented, it would interesting to watch how he’s adapted the movie from the book.

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