Nick Naylor is a lobbyist, and he’s one of the most hated men on the face of the earth. The label doesn’t bother Nick because he’s not only good at what he does, he’s absolutely brilliant at what he does.
Nick sells poison. He knows it, the people who buy his product know it, and the people trying to regulate him know it. Selling home kits to club baby harp seals would be a step up for Nick, but he’s not interested.
What Nick is interested in is selling tobacco. Cigarettes. Cancer sticks. Coffin nails. Nick has heard them all, and at the end of the evening doesn’t care as long as he’s done his job. With cigarettes killing more than 1,200 people a day, Nick has his work cut out for him.
So does writer-director Jason Reitman, who has adapted Christopher Buckley’s jab at big tobacco into a wicked satire which smokes rings around its subject. Buckley’s book, which left Hollywood (and Mel Gibson’s production company) baffled for over a decade, is a tough nut to crack. It takes an unpopular subject, spearheaded by an equally unpopular antagonist, and asks us to care.
Thank You for Smoking is ripe for satire, sometimes too ripe, but that doesn’t stop Reitman from putting a friendly face on an unfriendly hot-button topic. In any other film, Nick would be a monster, but as played by Aaron Eckhart, he’s just a man and father with a job to do. The fact is, Nick is so good at what he does he becomes apprehensible. He lives by a modest, somewhat unconscionable agenda: If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.
That argument fuels the bottom line of Thank You for Smoking, which avoids easy potshots by regenerating familiar controversies into hilarious displays of bravado. The script is filled with hilarious asides and commentaries, taking aim at numerous sacred cows. Most hit their target, some with deadly precision.
Reitman, the son of director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), capably mixes comedy and pathos into a pleasant blend. In order for us to appreciate Nick, we have to understand him, and Nick’s relationship with his young son Joey (Cameron Bright, the spooky kid from Godsend) is the key to unlocking those emotions. Most of the time we marvel, sometimes in disgust, at how well Nick can spin the truth to favor his employer, but the moments he shares with Joey allow us to sneak in under his radar and embrace the man hiding behind the facade.
Eckhart, so good in Erin Brockovich and In The Company of Men, dazzles us with his ability to smile through all of the bullshit. Even as Nick sits across the stage from a young cancer victim on a television talk show, we believe that he believes his message. Eckhart makes Nick a villain worth rooting for, and he’s in good company.
Reitman lines every frame with excellent performers, each one capable of maneuvering us through this labyrinth of big tobacco, big money and Capitol gains. Reitman knows that without a strong supporting cast, Nick would become a caricature, diluting his effectiveness.
The strongest links are Nick’s comrades in arms, the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death), lobbyists for alcohol and firearms. Maria Bello is spunky as Polly Bailey, spokeswoman for the Moderation Council, a cover for the alcohol industry, while David Koechner goes off half-cocked as good old boy Bobby Jay Bliss, gun lobbyist and spokesman for SAFETY (Society for the Advancement of Firearms and the Effective Training of Youth).
The film is at its best as these three get together to discuss strategy. Their dialogues are what make Thank You for Smoking so funny. It’s not so much what they say, but the conviction with which they say it. We all know these folks can spin a story faster than Fox News, but watching them in action, hearing the words flow from their mouths like fine wine, it becomes frighteningly funny.
So are the iconic moments guaranteed to hit a nerve, as when Nick is sent to Hollywood with two missions: make good with the original cigarette cowboy (Sam Elliott), now dying of cancer; and convince the studios to make cigarette smoking more glamorous. Elliott, with his straggly gray hair and tanned, leather face, perfectly personifies what happened to that rugged cowboy lighting up out on the range.
Rob Lowe and Adam Brody are hysterical as the Hollywood agent and his eager-to-please assistant who desperately want to get into bed with big tobacco. Less thrilled with Nick’s progress is Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), who seems to be leading a one-man campaign against the tobacco industry (he wants a skull and crossbones placed on every pack). Macy, a wonderful actor of immense range, finds plenty to laugh at in the clueless Senator. More shrewd is Robert Duvall’s Captain, the man behind the Academy of Tobacco Studies. With his thick southern drawl, Duvall convinces us there’s something more sinister going on.
Back in Washington, Katie Holmes attempts to stretch beyond her limited range to play a calculating reporter willing to sleep with the enemy to get a story. In this stadium of heavy hitters, Holmes is the only one swinging strikes.
While the film does take some unfathomable leaps (at one point Nick is kidnapped and forced to endure an overdose of nicotine), it never strays far from the realm of satire. Reitman keeps everything nice and tight, never loitering long enough for us to look beyond the plot’s rationale. Should we find entertainment in others’ suffering and addiction? Not really, but the film isn’t about victims. It’s about exposing hypocrisy at every level.
Thank You for Smoking rises to the challenge, finding humor in the most unexpected places. Like Nick Naylor, Thank You for Smoking wears a big grin on its face.