Have you noticed how there are so few good adult comedies in recent years? I mean most comedies these days are aimed at teens, and include guys making silly noises and weird faces (like a Jim Carrey movie), guys getting drunk and acting stupid (like most Will Farrell movies), or guys being stupid and sophomoric (like Adam Sandler movies, or nearly every other one). What about a comedy about a smart guy, intended for an audience of smart people? You know, Murphy Brown style? Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it! But no more … check out Thank You for Smoking.
Let me set the stage for you. The time is the early 1990’s. Magazines are full of ads for booze and cigarettes, and billboards along the highways are covered with those ads as well. Two of the most recognizable images in the country are The Marlboro Man and The Kool Camel. Congress has just held hearings (which were televised on the still-relatively-new CNN network) about the health impact of smoking, and out of those hearings came a still-famous image of the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies, standing with right-hands raised, testifying that they are not aware of any negative health effects related to smoking. But the people know the truth; you could have asked any 10-year-old, and he’ll tell you that smoking is bad for you. Ah, the hypocrisy!! (Less than two years later, these same big tobacco companies entered into a universal settlement with the government, whereby they agreed to pay some $250 billion of the following 25 years.) Thank You for Smoking takes place in that narrow window of time there, between the initial hearings and the universal settlement, when the people knew the truth but the politicians were always a step slow: it was “game on” for national public debate about smoking.
Thank You for Smoking stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the quick-talking and smart-arguing lead spokesperson and lobbyist for the big tobacco companies. His job is to protect the industry in the face of lawsuits and legislative attacks, which are mounting by the day and causing tobacco companies to fear for the future. Known around Washington DC as one of the smoothest operators in town, his verbal skills, intellectual cunning, and infernal charisma are forces of nature. None can stand before him when he gets rolling, as even great leaders of men are reduced to stammering
children before his rhetorical mastery. Nick is reaching the top of the ladder at work, and he is balancing on the threshold of achieving fame / infamy in DC. He is gaining the favor of the tobacco industry’s godfather (“The Captain” played by Robert Duvall), and he has sweet-talked his way into the pants of the reporter who was sent to slay him. Just as things couldn’t get any better for Nick, his world comes crashing down around him. The movie is actually more about Naylor and how he does his job and less about the politics of smoking, and it dares to ask the question, “Nick, how can you live with yourself?”
The movie is guaranteed (by me, which isn’t worth much!) to have you laughing from start to end, regardless of where you stand politically. Rookie writer/director Jason Reitman (based on the 1990’s novel by Christopher Buckley) has created a comical story based around a fascinatingly egotistical power-broker, who is well aware of his own abilities and yet oblivious to his own shortcomings. It sounds like a formula for a “how the mighty have fallen” story, but Nick’s attempt at a comeback after the fall is even more interesting and thrilling. And what makes the movie better is the fact that Nick’s personal story is wrapped in the middle of a fantastic satire, with the types of characters that anyone with a shred of knowledge of current affairs will find familiar and true.
The movie attacks the entire system as being silly and corrupt, and being driven by anything but concern for the common man. In this movie, we see the worst in everyone: we see a tobacco industry (and its spokesman) willing to mislead the public to keep selling its product, and we see the anti-smoking governmental wonks who are willing to go to any extreme to control individual behavior in their assault on a legal product. We see Hollywood bigwigs willing to do anything to make a few extra bucks and look cool, and we see the press as being nothing more than rumor-mongering whores. All behavior is taken to the extreme for our comical benefit, as Nick ends up in the middle of some hysterical situations, including a kidnapping (assault by nicotine patches), a confrontation with the face of tobacco (the Marlboro Man himself, played by Sam Elliott), and as “the man in the middle” of the politician and personal firestorm when his ego catches up to him. Everything in the movie is a bit over-the-top, and that might well get tiring if there weren’t so much truth to it!
Thank You for Smoking is a great movie because Eckhart becomes Nick Naylor whenever he’s on screen. Never pulling a punch, Eckhart makes us believe that Nick buys his own baloney more than anyone else does. When Nick is at his highest point, Eckhart plays him smooth and strong, with a magical twinkle in his eye that sucks you in. But Eckhart is equally impressive even as the layers of Nick’s cool get pulled away, and everything blows up in his face.
The supporting cast is outstanding as well, but some of the best scenes in the movie take place at meeting of the M.O.D Squad. These meeting are attended by Nick as the tobacco industry representative, by Polly Bailey (played by Maria Bello) as the alcohol industry lobbyist, and Bobby Jay Bliss (played by David Koechner) as the firearms industry rep. And M.O.D. is the acronym for “Merchants of Death”. The movie’s most biting commentary of the movie comes from these meetings, including an argument about which of the three has the toughest most important job, based on the number of people killed annually by their respective industry’s products. It’s brilliantly witty stuff.
Thank You for Smoking is an intelligent satire, as much about a man as it is about politics. The movie is about something, yet it doesn’t let “the cause” weigh down the movie-going experience. And its director’s willingness to take shots at people of every interest makes it all the more special. 5 out of 5 stars from me!