Sunday, October 08, 2006

Movie Review: "Thank You for Smoking"

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, J.K. Simmons and Robert Duvall
Directed by Jason Reitman

Official Web site

Bolstered by a standout cast and a sharp script he based on the bestselling novel by Christopher Buckley, Jason Reitman’s directorial debut, “Thank You for Smoking,” is both a witty and entertaining satire of the power of spin control in today’s society.

With the tobacco industry as its primary backdrop, the film wastes no time showing off the speaking prowess of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a spokesperson and lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who works for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. Never mind that the academy is largely funded by the big tobacco companies, it’s a way to pay the mortgage, Naylor reasons.

At the film’s beginning, Naylor appears on a talk show and in his few minutes of camera time, manages to bring an initially hostile audience into his corner, by promising a $50 million anti-teen smoking education campaign. Granted, his boss only approved a $5 million campaign, but the goodwill Naylor generates from the appearance more than makes up for the additional money. That’s not to mention that it impresses an industry bigwig (Robert Duvall) so much that he allows him to ride on his private plane – an honor even Naylor’s cranky boss (J.K. Simmons) hasn’t gotten to experience.

With a seemingly effortless charm, Naylor would seem to be a perfect spokesman for an industry that he openly admits kills 1,200 people a day. Whether its dealing with an angry and bitter former Marlboro Man stricken with cancer (Sam Elliott), an ambitious journalist (Katie Holmes), or an anti-smoking senator (William H. Macy), Naylor exudes confidence. In some instances, he’s able to convince people to do things they seem morally opposed to doing. Case in point is a great scene between Eckhart and Elliott involving a giant pile of cash. In another case, he’s able to become sympathetic when somebody tries to kill him, with smoking actually a contributing factor to his survival.

Eckhart largely hits the right notes as Naylor, crafting a character that could easily have become reprehensible into one that actually is a bit difficult to dislike. Achieving that is due to the mostly lighter tone the movie carries, portraying his character as someone who’s very good at his job (he must have been a great debater in high school), but is also trying to be a good father to his observant and intelligent son (Cameron Bright). The scenes with Eckhart and Bright help humanize Naylor a bit more, yet certainly don’t paint him as a saint.

Reitman resists the urge to bludgeon the viewer with anti-smoking rants or heavy-handed theatrics meant to illicit an emotional response. If anything, the movie sets so many targets in its sights that the satire is somewhat diluted and unfocused. With such a big cast at its disposal, it makes you wish to see the characters a bit more fleshed out. For example, two of Naylor’s friends (his only friends, he admits), an alcohol industry spokesperson (Maria Bello) and a firearms industry proponent (David Koechner) are interesting, but given little to do. The regular meetings of the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad could be an interesting story line all its own.

It might not be as pointed a satire as some of its targets deserve, but “Thank You for Smoking” is certainly well-timed. In a mid-term election year (which includes a tobacco tax on Missouri ballots), the film, through its use of humor, might open up some fresh dialogue about smoking. That would certainly be a breath of fresh air.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for language and some sexual content.)

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