Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Anybody know Jason Reitman’s home address? I’d like to drive over and give him a big fat kiss on the lips. Too much? Fine, I’d at least like to send him a basket of cookies, or a deluxe fondue set–anything to express my gratitude for his debut film, Thank You For Smoking. Ah, who am I kidding? With a calling card like this, Reitman won’t need my meager gifts. Studio heads will be tripping over their slippery wingtips to hire him next. This kid’s got a bright future.
Thank You For Smoking is a near-perfect satire of the political lobby industry. Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, a hotshot lobbyist for big tobacco. He’s a suave front man who can talk up a storm and charm the socks off anyone, including cancer victims who have contracted their doom from his product. As he says in the film, “You know that guy who can pick up any girl? I’m him. On crack.”
The film finds Nick at a high point in his career. He’s easily the best and brightest guy in his office, and “The Captain,” a powerful granddaddy of the tobacco industry, has taken a personal interest in Nick’s career. Soon Nick is flitting between Washington D.C. and Hollywood while trying to appease the politicians with rhetoric and seduce the general public with sexy smoking imagery. He undertakes both missions with appreciable enthusiasm and neatly dismisses any ethical conundrum that might arise from selling death. He cheerfully tells a reporter that his job requires ” a certain moral flexibility.” And how.
In the midst of this meteoric rise, Nick is also trying to maintain his fragile relationship with his young son. Little Joey is growing more and more curious about what his father does for a living, and Nick’s ex-wife is taking no pains to paint dear ol’ dad in a positive light. Nick seems determined to be a good father, but fails to realize that might mean he has to be a good person first. His lessons on how to effectively deceive people might not impress others, but it sure impresses Joey.
What makes this film such a unique pleasure? Director Reitman makes the most of every scene, exploiting the humor and poignancy inherent in the story, and he never apologizes for his characters. In the end, yes, Nick learns a lesson, but it’s not the one you might expect, and along the way we’re treated to a stellar supporting cast, including William H. Macy, Sam Elliott, Robert Duvall, Todd Louiso, J.K. Simmons, Rob Lowe, and David Koechner. The one cast member who fails to make an impression is the inimitably bland Katie Holmes (as a reporter who diverts Nick in more ways than one). The dialogue in the film is pointed and laugh-out-loud funny.
But Reitman’s greatest achievement is that he’s created a satire that is both wicked and charming. I’ve seen some critics pooh-poohing the film as toothless. Such nay-sayers might stop to consider why nastier satires function well as commentary, but typically fail as movies (think Bob Roberts). They’re full of unlikeable characters doing deplorable things so the audience can cluck their tongues and feel superior. Instead, Reitman has given us relatable characters doing deplorable things, and questionable things, and admirable things. Instead of sitting in judgement over Nick, we’re invited to consider whether we might be him.