Thank You For Smoking


Reviewed by: The Exile

Thank You For Smoking
"A surprisingly tame little film - a sheep in wolf's clothing."

For all the buying frenzy and distribution deal backstabbing it provoked at Sundance this year, Thank You For Smoking is a surprisingly tame little film - a sheep in wolf's clothing. Yet the fuss over its acquisition tells us a lot about the kind of product distributors think they can sell to American audiences: an ostensibly risque topic (tobacco lobbying), presented in such a wholesome, winking manner that even Jimmy Stewart could have played the lead.

In other words, Thank You For Smoking is exactly the kind of satire Hollywood loves, politically correct and morally unimpeachable. That some people consider it daring, and even subversive, says more about the sorry state of our film industry than about the film itself.

Copy picture

Nevertheless, this is a movie so light on its feet and so sharply written by director Jason Reitman from Christopher Buckley's novel that it may be a while before you notice its timidity. Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as Nick Naylor, a smugly effective tobacco industry lobbyist, proud of his "moral flexibility".

Nick has no particular loyalty to cigarettes. What he loves is argument - the art of the spin - and in his eyes, it's an honorable profession. "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong," he tells his 12-year-old son, Joey (Cameron Bright), before demonstrating his talents on Joan Lunden's talk show. Confronted by a bald, cancer-stricken smoker, Nick explains why it's in Big Tobacco's interest to minimize deaths: "Why would we want to lose customers?"

When not ducking responsibility for terminal illness, Nick hangs out with fellow lobbyists Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), advocates for alcohol and firearms respectively. Calling themselves "the MOD Squad" - a cheerful acronym for Merchants of Death - the three gleefully compete for greatest number of annual victims (smoking wins, of course). These scenes are some of the funniest in the film, anchored in reality by Koechner's perfectly gauged performance as a jovially cynical gun nut with complete self-acceptance.

Indeed, much of Smoking's slick cleverness would fall flatter than a collapsed lung without the nimbleness of its cast, including a socks-and-Birkenstocks-wearing William H Macy as an anti-smoking senator from Vermont and JK Simmons as Nick's rabid boss, B.R. In one of the film's wittier moments, a casually lethal Rob Lowe appears as a Hollywood dealmaker, hired by Nick to put cigarettes back in the movies, with Adam Brody as his ingratiating assistant. It's the most self-reflexive and seamlessly satirical scene in the film.

Surrounded by so much talent, Katie Holmes' limp and unconvincing turn as a seductive journalist is the movie's biggest misstep. So immature is Holmes that when we see Nick about to enter her hotel room, the number 12 on the door is like a warning he's about to break the law. Eckhart himself, however, hasn't had a role this meaty since 1997's In The Company Of Men, in which he also played an amoral, fatuous pig. The man definitely has a knack for unlikeability.

Smoothly directed by first-timer Reitman (son of Ghostbusters' Ivan), Thank You For Smoking is snappy and fast moving, with no time for reflection. What it isn't is daring: the dangers of cigarettes are so universally acknowledged it's hardly a risk to ask us to despise a man whose job is to promote them. For absolute proof of the filmmakers' skittishness, notice there isn't a single cigarette smoked in the entire movie.

So this isn't an anti-smoking film, nor even anti-capitalist (neither Reitman, nor Buckley, has any interest in being redundant). Neither is it a libertarian argument for the freedom to kill ourselves as we choose, because Nick has no real beliefs, or ideals, libertarian or otherwise. As Buckley himself has stated in interviews, he's most interested in how deeply people will compromise themselves to pay their mortgages - what he calls "the yuppie Nuremberg defense".

Viewed in that light, Thank You For Smoking is no more than a rancid expression of middle-class cynicism. Even if it is damned funny.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2006
Share this with others on...
Thank You For Smoking packshot
Satire on smoking and spin.
Amazon link

Read more Thank You For Smoking reviews:

Anton Bitel ****
Paul Griffiths ****

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H Macy, JK Simmons, Robert Duvall, Kim Dickens

Year: 2005

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Sundance 2006

Search database: