This movie wants to be the Dr. Strangelove of the tobacco wars and I’ll be darned if doesn’t almost do it. Some might say that cigarettes are an even more audacious subject for a comedy than nuclear war, since tobacco takes out more people in a given year then the A-bomb has in the history of the human race. Thank You For Smoking certainly aims for big targets, but they are also easy targets. The film’s position, namely that tobacco companies have behaved with the all the moral fiber of Jeffrey Dahmer’s ne’er-do-well brother, is hardly original nor particularly newsworthy. This acid-etched satire, directed by Ivan Reitman’s son, Jason, scores its points with sharply drawn characters.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the tobacco industry’s point man in the information wars. It’s his job to go on television and paint cigarettes in the best possible light. He can spin better than a champion figure skater. He’s also the estranged father of a young son, Joey (Cameron Bright), which keeps him on a strange sort of straight and narrow. He needs to be able to look his boy in the eyes while still spinning the truth for his employers.
Nick’s bosses include the bombastic and profane “B.R.” Rohrabacher (J.K. Simmons), who bellows like General Patton, and the courtly but amoral “Captain” (Robert Duvall), sort of a godfather figure in the tobacco industry. His weekly lunch dates are the MOD Squad (“Merchants Of Death”), representatives of the alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms industries (David Koechner), who gather to swap sob stories about putting a happy face on potentially lethal products.
With a plan to induce Hollywood to help make cigarettes cool again, Nick jets off to California with his son in tow. He meets with the biggest agent in town (Rob Lowe), who sees re-introducing smoking into the movies as just another problem to be solved. While he’s in California, Nick is given an errand by the Captain to deliver a “gift” to the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who’s dying of lung cancer.
Nick’s biggest adversary is a Senator from Vermont (William H. Macy), an obsessive anti-tobacco campaigner with a plan to place a skull and crossbows label on cigarette packs, but he really meets his match in a journalist (Katie Holmes) doing a profile on the “Yuppie Mephistopheles.”
If the movie has a flaw, it would be how the big, political targets are really just whacked over the head with a blunt instrument instead of a razor-sharp scalpel. The lunch date scenes with the MOD Squad never take off comedically. The other two characters never rise above broad caricatures, blunting any real satire. However, the film does score a valid point when Nick argues that guns and booze are just amateurs compared to the tobacco industry when it comes to contributing to the death of its customers.
Fortunately, the character of Nick Naylor and the performance by Aaron Eckhart are dead on target. He walks a tightrope between likability and amorality. His real strength is that he never tells a really blatant lie, but rather turns every debate around until he is arguing from a favorable position. To him, he’s just doing a job to pay the mortgage (on a house in which his ex-wife lives with her new boyfriend), a trait which makes it possible for the audience to connect with him on some level, even if they find his calling in life morally repugnant. We can even understand (and laugh nervously) when the father/son bonding trip to California only strengthens Joey’s admiration of his dad.
So, even if Thank You For Smoking aims at obvious targets and occasionally falls wide of the mark, the center of the film holds and absolutely nails the landing.