A political satire that tells the plain unspun truth, “Thank You For Smoking” is the refreshing exception to the spate of recent propaganda films. Sure, it pokes fun at the government and at Hollywood (agents particularly get skewered), but, ultimately, petty humor fades as the very nature of our society comes under scrutiny. At issue is America’s soul.
Writer-director Jason Reitman nails the disturbing discrepancy between American ethical and religious values and our obsession with moneymaking. And the film does an incredible slight of hand, extolling the virtues of capitalism — consumer freedom and the like — yet showing those virtues in practice to be socially reprehensible.
One by one, over the course of the film, honor, love, integrity and morality are pitted against money, and money wins out every time. Just like “Network” so many years ago, “Thank You For Smoking” drives at the consuming emptiness of American culture. In a lesser film this type of social critique might come across as pedantic, but Reitman doesn’t lead his audience by the hand. “Thank You For Smoking” functions as a litmus test, uncovering existing feelings but not planting anything new. Rather than a call to arms, the film stimulates discussion, and Reitman’s balanced screenplay poses many interesting questions.
Big Tobacco’s main Washington lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) has it good. Gifted with a Satanic tongue, he can convince anyone of anything and has even managed to bed the perky young reporter sent to write an expose on him (Katie Holmes). His young son Joey (Cameron Bright) looks up to him as a role model and the head of one of the tobacco companies, The Captain (Robert Duvall), wants to promote him. When a crotchety Senator from Vermont, Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy), proposes a bill to put a skull and crossbones on cigarette packets, The Captain taps Nick to turn the tide against Finistirre. In response, Nick takes his precocious son out of school and goes to California, intending to broker a deal with Hollywood to reglamorize smoking, while, at the same time, teaching his son the tricks of the trade.
The father-son lessons which follow are treated humorously, while also wielding a substantial edge. Most significant is a visit to the ex-Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot) who is dying of lung cancer. Sent to silence the Man, Nick slyly tempts him with a nearly Biblical bribe; and this figure of honorable America, the cowboy with a heart of gold, kneels down to pick up the money in front of Nick’s son. Reitman treats these moments with such light-hearted jesting that only afterwards does the disturbing import sink in.
The film’s pied piper extraordinaire, Naylor aids in this conscience-lulling. Aaron Eckhart’s performance makes Nick damned likeable. Friendly and cheerful yet a self-titled Merchant of Death, he is a living example of American contradiction. A convincing salesman who can argue anything, Nick’s sophist perspective almost seizes control of the film, but ultimately, he cuts the nonsense when it comes to his son. While he has no scruples selling death to the rest of the populace, he is not willing to set a bad example for Joey.
Reitman pens a winning script that navigates the tricky waters of corporate advertising with graceful ease. Nary a line comes off as unnatural, giving the rote plot, which seems to pattern itself after “Anchorman,” a gilded casing. Laugh at your own peril: “Thank You” is so chock full of witticisms that its rapid-fire retorts are frequently drowned out by the previous joke.
Fortunately, the film never goes over the top. Neither Nick’s silver tongue nor Rob Lowe’s silk kimono are enough to banish the unease stirred up by the serious issues thrown onto the screen. Unlike the intellectual emptiness that pervades most movies, “Thank You For Smoking” bandies about so many ideas that a repeat viewing is almost necessary to catch them all.
The focus required to glean the most from “Smoking” might seem like hard work, but the resulting rewards of such an intelligent crackerjack film are worth the effort. Otherwise, as Nick so aptly puts it: “If you want an easy job, go work for the Red Cross.”