Nick Naylor (Eckhart) is the chief spokesman for cigarette-industry giant Big Tobacco. He’s a fast-talking king of spin who can twist even the most unsympathetic audience around his finger. But can he deal with a crusading senator’s (Macy) campaign to have every fag packet labelled ‘poison’, while also doing right by his own impressionable son (Bright)?
Don’t pay too much heed to the plot synopsis above — Thank You For Smoking isn’t quite that easy to encapsulate. Which is not entirely to its benefit. Jason ‘Son Of Ivan’ Reitman’s feature debut is, like the novel on which it’s based, a scattershot satire that’s a bit too scattershot for its own good. You’re never entirely sure what journey Reitman – via “yuppie ephistopheles” Nick Naylor – is taking us on here. We have Naylor versus William H. Macy’s frustrated senator; Naylor tasked with getting cancer-sticks back in Hollywood movies (resulting in a hilarious semi-cameo by Rob Lowe as an agent “who just loves… Asian shit”); Naylor sent to deal with a suit-threatening, Big C-stricken ex-Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott); Naylor’s ill-advised relationship with a vampish journo (an embarrassingly miscast Katie Holmes); the death-threats he receives from an extreme anti-smoking group; the challenge of him having to suddenly give up nicotine… And so on.
The problem’s not so much with the movie’s aim, as with
the number of targets it’s aiming at. Still, if you just treat it as a dark, political-comedy sketch show, you’ll for the most part be choking with laughter. A sideways glance at Washington’s more dubious lobby-groups, its wryest scenes are those in which Nick meets up with his counterparts for the alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (David Koechner) industries — a trio who refer to themselves as the “MOD squad”, MOD standing for “Merchants Of Death”.
Meanwhile, Reitman ensures that the script zings with great lines. “You know the guy who can pick up any girl?” asks Naylor during his introductory voiceover. “I’m him on crack.”Given his seemingly reprehensible nature, it would have been a tough job for any actor to make Naylor even halfway sympathetic. But Aaron Eckhart, all firm handshakes and shit-eating grins, pulls it off. On the one hand we can laugh in disbelief as he points out to a child that his mommy, who told him smoking is bad for him, “is hardly a credible expert”.
On the other, we can believe in him as a caring father himself, who genuinely wants the best for his own son. Sure, it comes close to veering into schmaltz when dealing with Naylor
Jr., but it’s at least a useful device to make clear that what we have here isn’t so much a pro-tobacco movie using irony as a weak disguise, as a humorous — albeit flawed — investigation into where the boundaries of personal choice should be set.
Structural scrappiness aside, it remains a laudably amoral and superbly caustic comedy for those who like their satire strong and unfiltered.