Thank You for Smoking
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, Maria Bello, David Koechner, and Katie Holmes
Written and directed by Jason Reitman, son of veteran Hollywood funny filmmaker Ivan Reitman, Thank You for Smoking is pretty much what you’d expect from a born-to-the-Malibu Mansion post-liberal. Depending entirely on a craven assumption of its audience’s cynicism to cover up its corrupt, pro-whorish heart, it offers a message for our troubled times: In a world where everyone seems to be a crook, the only truly admirable man is he who admits to and revels in his corruption. If nothing else, Rietman Jr. can relieve P.J. O’Rourke as poster-boy humorist for 2006 RNC fundraisers.
With its scenario adapted from the bestselling tongue-in-cheek novel by old-school conservative apologist William F. Buckley’s son, Christopher, we get Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a self-made man making a mint on lobbying for big tobacco. “You know that guy who can pick up any girl?” he gloats in voice-over. “I’m him … on crack.”
Nick’s divorced but has a terrific son, Joey (Birth’s Omen-esque Cameron Bright), whose love he nurtures with inspirational tales of moral nihilism. (In a typical nugget of fatherly wisdom, Nick declares, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”)
When not making mincemeat of anti-smoking experts and a boy dying of cancer on the Joan Lundgren Show, lovable, roguish Nick spends his off hours hanging with lobbyists from the booze industry (Maria Bello) and gun business (David Koechner). Together, they call themselves the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad, and enjoy good-natured face-offs regarding whose industry kills more people.
In a meandering series of events hiding under the rubric of plot, Nick sleeps with a casually corrupt reporter (Katie Holmes), pays off the ethically challenged, cancer-ridden original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who, being working class, is also stupendously stupid. In a riff sure to please his Hollywood pals, Nick works out a synergistic pro-smoking deal with a Michael Ovitz-ian super-agent (Rob Lowe), and is later almost nicotine-patched to death by insane, anti-smoking activists.
Of course, in a comedy, a panoply of sins can be forgiven if your film is, you know, funny. But as with conservative humor in general — already a contradiction in terms — all Thank You can manage is a series of smirks. And so Joey attends St. Euthanasius’ private school, while Reitman toys with cool edginess by having Nick explain his “everybody’s gotta make the mortgage” cover for vile acts as “the yuppie’s Nuremberg” defense.
In a film supposedly skewering all sides of a debate — something Todd Solondz’s Palindromes managed to do brilliantly and with genuine sympathy for his polarized characters and their extreme views — Reitman opts for the less-difficult stratagem of not giving a crap about his people and pimping exclusively Rightwards.
Scoundrels such as Robert Duvall’s rascally tobacco baron are adorable; do-gooders are blowhard hypocrites (William H. Macy’s Vermont Senator), clueless losers (Nick’s ex-wife and her uncool doctor husband), or outright psychopaths (the aforementioned anti-smoking creeps.)
Of course, the movies have always had a soft spot for dirty, rotten scoundrels. But usually there’s either a comeuppance or contextually mitigating explanations for bad behavior. Not here.
In an aggressive piss-take on Frank Capra-style humanist populism, Nick’s testimony before a Senate committee — what others call his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment” — turns out to be nothing less than a hosanna to absolute spiritual whorishness. But the exceedingly mild humor sours long before that.
Early in the film, Joey asks his dad why the U.S. has the best government on Earth. Nick answers by saying it’s a bullshit question, going on to list the manifold ways the U.S. is lacking in terms of democratic values, corporate regulations, trade agreements, and so on, all that milquetoasty liberal crap.
Still, he never really answers Joey’s question: Reitman’s film does it for him. In what begins as a visual joke but, with constant repetition, becomes a summation, we see the M.O.D. Squad lunching under a sign reading: “Take Pride in America — We Have the Best Government Money Can Buy!” Of course, that’s only half right.