Huffing About Puffing

Fox Searchlight Pictures/MovieWeb

Washington City Paper | March 17, 2006
Big Tobacco is indicted in Thank You for Smoking, a satire based on a novel by Christopher Buckley about a spokesperson/spin doctor for the cigarette industry—or, as the character puts it, one of the few people in the world who “knows what it’s like to be truly despised.”

Not that Jason Reitman’s feature debut really shows us how that feels. With jaunty music, freeze frames on just-introduced characters, and even a cartoon or two—of, for example, a couple of airplanes when stats on various causes of death are trotted out—there’s little danger of taking Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) or his job too seriously. Not that he doesn’t: When Nick goes to a school—St. Euthanasius—to give a talk about what he does, he answers a little girl’s questions about her mother’s assertion that cigarettes are bad by throwing questions back at her about whether her mother is a doctor or scientist: “Well, she doesn’t sound like a credible expert, does she?” Nick urges the students not to take anyone else’s word on a subject: “Challenge authority! Find out for yourselves!” Even the teacher seems momentarily convinced.

Nick is so chipper and oily that he even triumphs on an Oprah episode featuring a 15-year-old lung-cancer patient. His son, Joey (Cameron Bright), asks questions about Dad’s dubious propaganda, but Nick answers simply, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” Still, the numbers are going down, and Nick’s tantrum-throwing boss, BR (J.K. Simmons), has to get his people together to come up with a new strategy to sell smokes. Everyone’s silent. “We sell cigarettes!” BR bellows. “And they’re cool, and available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us!” Nick finally suggests campaigning Hollywood to get actors smoking onscreen again, and he’s off to Los Angeles to get a movie made.

The tobacco industry isn’t the only target here. The press, particularly a “Washington Probe” reporter (Katie Holmes), takes a punch, too. So do the two friends Nick has regular steakhouse drinking sessions with: the spokespeople for the alcohol and firearms industries (Maria Bello and David Koechner). The three refer to themselves as the MOD Squad—for “Merchants of Death.” They like to discuss who’s in the most difficult position to spin the uproar du jour.

Reitman gets the dialogue and tone just right, and the performances are spot-on, too. Eckhart’s Nick is too personable to hate, Simmons is a terrific hardass, and even Robert Duvall gives his first unembarrassing turn in quite a while as a Southern tobacco patriarch. William H. Macy also makes an appearance as a flustered senator who’s out to hang Nick but never quite succeeds—especially after the tobacco lobbyist argues that the senator’s territory dishes out unhealthy fare, as well. (“The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!” Macy’s official stammers.) Eckhart and Bright also play their characters’ sometimes ridiculous bonding scenes—one occurs on a road trip during which both of them agree that they would take a bribe if it were large enough—with an assured wink.

It’s all in fun, but obviously there’s a message here—one of the many messages of V for Vendetta, in fact: You can’t trust anything or anybody, because even the worst of situations can be spun to look golden. The fact that there’s a doctor who can back up Nick’s slick sell with data says it all: “This man,” Nick says, “could disprove gravity.”

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