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Thank You for Smoking   B

Fox Searchlight Pictures / Room 9 Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley)
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall, Kim Dickens, Connie Ray, Todd Louiso.

Review by Rob Vaux
"This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster..."
--John Doe (Kevin Spacey), Seven

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) has a gift for argument. His verbal skills, intellectual cunning, and infernal charisma are forces of nature. None can stand before him when he gets going; great leaders of men are reduced to stammering children before his rhetorical mastery. So what does he do? He signs on to the tobacco industry, defending their cancer-ridden product as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. They make him rich and give him a podium to follow his bliss. It's a terrific deal... as long as you don't mind being universally despised or defending a business that kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. As a satirical notion, the possibilities of such a character are endless. And yet Thank You for Smoking works only moderately well as a satire. Its true strengths come from going beyond the easy jokes: asking why someone might choose to do what Naylor does and how they can look at themselves in the mirror each morning. He's a target for lampooning, but both Eckhart and director Jason Reitman commit to making him human -- and thus render the film as much a character study as a comedy.

There's a tradeoff to that, because it blunts the venomous bite that the material demands. Reitman achieves a clever, slightly smarmy tone that matches his protagonist quite well, but falls short of the Machiavellian brilliance that it could have achieved. Naylor's adventures in Lobbyist Land follow a slow, shaggy-dog progression, helped along by voice-over narration and the sort of stream-of-consciousness editorial referencing favored by smart-aleck sitcoms like Arrested Development. He duels with anti-cigarette advocates on talk shows, explaining that big tobacco wants to keep cancer patients "alive and smoking," while brokering deals with a big-time Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe in a scene-stealing turn) to put post-coital menthols into on-screen hands. He boozes it up with fellow lobbyists Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) -- representing the liquor and firearms industry respectively -- in a trifecta glibly referred to as the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad. He jets down to Raleigh-Durham to meet with the tobacco king known only as the Captain (Robert Duvall) and perform tasks of dubious morals at his employer's whim. And he struggles to raise a son (Cameron Bright) who quietly idolizes him even as his divorced wife (Kim Dickens) looks deeply askance at his sordid occupation.

Each sequence demonstrates a modicum of wit, cynically skewering the notion that compelling rhetoric can somehow substitute for genuine ethics. Our world revolves around such a notion: men come to power by it, manipulate the public with it, and avoid responsibility through it. Characters like Naylor could cheerfully claim that up is down, believing with all their might that, as he puts it, "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong." Reitman handles the premise well enough, and the gags have an intelligence rarely seen in this era of fart jokes and stupid pratfalls. But they lack real daring -- using the characters' quirks for humor rather than the underlying ideas they represent.

At the same time, by paying the price in comedic boldness, the film brings tremendous insight into Naylor's character, lending him (and by extension those like him) depth and nuance that a gutsier attack may have reduced to caricature. Naturally, it helps to have the right man in the lead; few other actors can make pure evil so convincingly normal, and Eckhart works overtime to find the motivation and justification for Naylor's odious calling. The character essentially finds big tobacco an enticing challenge, allowing him to hone the argumentative skills for which he was born by taking a position that few could plausibly defend. We're not even certain he believes in what he's saying. It's spin itself that he worships: the art of making a seductive point, no matter how monstrous or irresponsible. By letting us in on his thought processes, the film pulls off a quiet magic trick and gets us to root for him without once condoning what he does. And he's not alone in his outlook. In Naylor's world, everyone is a shark, from the pretty reporter (Katie Holmes) looking for a big exposé to the pandering senator (William H. Macy) taking an anti-smoking crusade to ludicrous extremes. If he's guilty, the film claims, then so are the people he does battle with and the system that encourages their tactics.

The approach gives Thank You for Smoking a decidedly libertarian outlook, which counters its breezy surface and allows the satire to achieve some measure of fulfillment. While Reitman's rookie directing job feels too pat and neat to fully embrace such a complex topic, he's fast enough on his feet to avoid wandering too far off the path. As a political comedy, it may not rank up with the greats -- which is tragic, because the potential was here for a Network level triumph -- but it delivers enough laughs to justify the time, and enough subtext to prompt some interesting conversations after the show. The disappointments are slight, the benefits many... and like its central figure, Thank You for Smoking doesn't need anything more to close the deal.

Review published 03.15.2006.

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