Satirical black comedy follows the efforts of Nick (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who uses heavy spin tactics while also trying to remain a role model for his 12 year old son.
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.
By Dan Jolin, Empire, 26 May 2006.
Here is a satire both savage and elegant, a dagger instead of a shotgun. "Thank You for Smoking" targets the pro-smoking lobby with a dark appreciation of human nature. It stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. We meet him on "The Joan Lunden Show," sitting next to bald-headed little Robin, a 15-year-old boy who is dying of cancer, "but has stopped smoking." Nick rises smoothly to the challenge: "It's in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking," he explains. "The anti-smoking people want Robin to die."
Nick Naylor is a pleasant, good-looking career lobbyist who is divorced, loves his son Joey (Cameron Bright) and speaks to the kid's class on career day. "Please don't ruin my childhood," Joey pleads, but his dad cross-examines a little girl whose mother says cigarettes can kill you: "Is your mother a doctor?" Once a week he dines with the MOD Squad, whose other members are alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and firearms lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). They argue over which of their products kills the most people. The initials MOD stand for "Merchants of Death."
The movie was directed by Jason Reitman, now 29, who warmed up by making short subjects. What's remarkable in his first feature is his control of tone; instead of careening from one target to the next, he brings a certain detached logic to his method. Notice how Nick negotiates with a Hollywood super-agent (Rob Lowe) on the challenge of getting movie stars to smoke onscreen once again. Right now, they agree, no one smokes in the movies except for villains, and Europeans. The stars would have to smoke in historical pictures, since in a contemporary film other people would always be asking them why they smoke. Or -- why not in the future, after cigarettes are safe? Smoking in a space station?
Reitman grew up around movies; his father is Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Evolution"). But Jason has his own style, sneaky and subtle. Instead of populating his movie with people smoking and coughing and wheezing, he shows not a single person smoking, although the ancient Captain (Robert Duvall), czar of the tobacco industry, holds a cigar like a threat. Eckhart has a good line in plausible corporate villains (see his debut in "In the Company of Men"), and he is smiling, optimistic, and even trusting (as when he tells girl reporter Katie Holmes things he should know will not be off the record).
Naylor's opponent in the film is Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), a Vermont environmentalist whose office desk is covered with his collection of maple syrup bottles. The senator has introduced legislation requiring a skull and crossbones to be displayed on every cigarette pack, replacing the government health warning. The symbol is better than the words, he explains, because "They want those who do not speak English to die."
Reitman's screenplay is based on a novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F.), and retains a literary flavor rare in a time when many movies are aimed at people who move their lips when they think. Consider this exchange between Nick and his young son, who wants help on a school assignment:
Joey: "Dad, why is the American government the best government?"
Nick: "Because of our endless appeals system."
Or this nostalgia by Duvall, as the Captain: "I was in Korea shooting Chinese in 1952. Now they're our best customers. Next time we won't have to shoot so many of them."
What I admired above all in "Thank You for Smoking" was its style. I enjoyed the satire; I laughed a lot because it's a very funny movie, but laughs are common and satire, as we all know, is what closes on "Saturday Night Live." Style is something modern movies can't always find the time for. I am thinking for some reason of "The Thin Man" (1934), a movie that works in large part because of the way William Powell and Myrna Loy hold themselves, move, and speak; their attitude creates a space between the vulgarities of the plot and the elegance of their personalities, and in that space the humor resides. Their lives are their works of art. Nick Naylor is like them, not egotistical or conceited so much as an objective observer of his own excellence. It is the purpose of the movie to humble him, but he never grovels, and even in a particularly nasty situation is still depending on his ability to spin anything to his advantage. If you want to remake "The Thin Man," I say Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Keener.
Should the movie be angrier? I lost both of my parents to cigarettes, but I doubt that more anger would improve it. Everyone knows cigarettes can kill you, but they remain on sale and raise billions of dollars in taxes. The target of the movie is not so much tobacco as lobbying in general, which along with advertising and spin-control makes a great many evils palatable to the population. How can you tell when something is not good for you? Because of the efforts made to convince you it is harmless or beneficial. Consider the incredible, edible egg. "Drink responsibly." Prescription drug prices being doubled "to fund research for better health."
At one point in the movie Nick pays a call on Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), a former Marlboro Man, now dying of cancer and speaking out bitterly against cigarettes. Nick brings along a briefcase full of $100 bills. This is not a bribe, he explains. It is a gift. Of course, to accept such a gift and then continue to attack tobacco would be ungrateful. Lorne eyes the money and wonders if he could maybe take half of it and cut back on his attacks. Nick explains with genuine regret that it doesn't work that way. Once you're on board, you're along for the ride.
Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert.com,
|11 (30%)||16 (43%)||8 (22%)||1 (3%)||1 (3%)|
Total Number of Responses: 37
Film Score (0-5): 3.95
118 members and guests attended the screening of Thank you for Smoking when you also saw Mark Hammett’s short film, Straight Out of Compton. We received 37 Responses which is only a 31% response rate. This delivered a Film Score of 3.95.
There were many positive comments passed both in writing and on the night about Marks film and you will have another opportunity to engage with the world of shorts on Tuesday 28th November.
All of your comments are collected below.
“A very funny gallows film. Great lead performance, razor sharp script, playful editing….”
“Witty in places”. “Lots to think about. Subtitles would have helped”.
“The short film 'Straight Out of Compton' was a joyful experience. The joy of filmmaking shone through - well done! The storyline was fun, particularly the portrayal of Mrs. Peacock. The film's focus on 'being ordinary,' an often-overlooked yet crucial aspect of human achievement, was meaningful, and the portrayal of the youth struggling to be normal was well-executed despite the various limitations. Thank you for showing 'Thank You for Smoking'. Beneath the blockbuster comedy, the film tackles serious social issues, not limited to just smoking. Humanising the anti-hero was a clever choice. It addresses addiction, among other topics, but what makes it good was its attempt to deal with the fundamental root causes of addiction, such as social pressure, stress, and familial issues. The father-son relationship held the story well, and the script was a winner.
(One negative aspect is the typical representation of Asian culture in the film. Many Hollywood movies and even BBC programs often misplace Chinese music with Japanese imagery. I lost count of these mistakes, and it reaches an almost amusing level, but I'm equally surprised by the lack of professionalism in the music departments of Western film and TV industries).
The film club may not have planned it but it was interesting that two films somehow resonated each other”.
“Much more thoughtful than I expected. Still struggling without sub-titles”.
“It's much better than the average US film but despite a tight script and great concept it still feels a little like Reitman finding his feet as a filmmaker here with random elements in a Wes Anderson vein that haven't dated well - and are inconsistent - and some interesting decisions in the edit, which didn't quite work for me. Strong characters and high comedy but often his female characters don't ring true despite the excellent work of this stellar cast”.
“Very Slick dialogue, clever graphics”. “Great film – shame about the American diction”.
“Given the pronouncement by the PM about smoking this film seemed timely. Had read the book years ago but not remembered it as cynically sharp as the film. Pretty light-hearted in many ways, jokes that are ladled heavily with irony. The portrayal of Nick who is clearly good at his job sees exposed to the more damaging aspects of his work. At turns I squirmed about his lack of morality – especially the opening chat show scene – then his relationship with his son reflects when he explains to his son that you are never wrong if you can argue correctly. Son responds with "just because you can do something, should you?" Film presents Nick as facing frustration and pride, as well as us sometimes having a (misplaced) sympathy for him. But his lack of honesty predominates and the euphemisms for his work are funny. Did wonder about the kidnapping? While it seemed central to the plot, so what? Who are the kidnappers? Did wonder at the end if Nick has really changed? Not really? Still a good movie “.
“The saddest and most notable thing about this film is that the artful sophistry of Naylor's spinning is no longer necessary. In the world of Bojo and Trump you don't need to be intelligent you just have to lie with conviction ...and should that fail lie bigger and louder. It is a great, dark, cynical script full of solid characters just the right side of caricature and is delivered at a pace which means the plot fault-lines are disguised. The arguments which are initially comic in their asinine cynicism become more nuanced but the film's tone wobbles queasily in the latter stages and is in danger of wanting to have its cake and eat it in terms of the father son relationship. That it just about gets away with it has much to do with Eckhart's performance and the cast are excellent throughout. That it is morally dubious - pro-choice but at what cost? - only makes it all the more thought provoking”.
“A lesson in defending the indefensible. Thought provoking and handled with humour. Another good choice. Thanks”.
“I have met people like Nick Naylor”. “Very entertaining”.
“Very enjoyable main picture. Straight out of Compton good too”.
“Funny, with a healthy dose of self-deprecation”.
“Difficult understanding the dialogue – which is me plus sound. A tad pedestrian, too obvious”.
“Very good. Thought provoking”.
“Explains the issues of the public and a range of “death” activities i.e., Drink, obesity, gun crime etc. - it’s for each of us to make our own decisions”.
“Some very clever dialogue. Film maintained audience interest”.
“Thought provoking – a bit clunky at times”.
“Difficult to follow”.
“Very slick and entertaining in the way it highlighted the hypocrisy inherent in all big business including the tobacco industries”.
“Did what it set out to do but in a facile and unchallenging way”.
“Serious but unsubtle and confused about language, profit and personal integrity”.
“I found the film difficult to follow”.
“I couldn’t tune into the emotion and comic elements - nothing new - all very obvious”.