Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking (2004): United States – directed by Jason Reitman

Rated R by the MPAA – contains profanity, sexual content, and mature themes

Jason Reitman’s directorial debut, while not as solid or engaging as his next two features, is still an enjoyable and impressive first effort.  The man who would go on to direct Juno [review here] and 2009’s best movie, Up in the Air [review here] certainly did not start out small.  Thank You For Smoking stars an A-list cast and a controversial subject, and, while occasionally wavering in tone, still manages to entertain.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), some might say, is a jerk.  He is a lobbyist for big tobacco, fighting for their rights amidst a maelstrom of hatred and public abuse.  He smiles constantly and his biggest weapon is his mouth.  He makes a living talking, convincing other people not that he’s right, but that his opponent is stupid and wrong.  It is this cynical but practical outlook on life that he tries to pass on to his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who manages to successfully use the technique to convince his mom to let him travel to California with Nick for a business trip.

Nick’s boss, BR (J.K. Simmons) is worried about the bad rap the industry has been getting.  After BR asks his staff for ideas, Nick suggests approaching Hollywood producers and bribing them to get their stars to smoke on screen.  BR likes the idea, and after the go-ahead nod from the Captain (Robert Duvall), the godfather of the tobacco conglomerates, Nick heads out to Los Angeles to discuss his ideas with casting wizard Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe).

Back home in Washington, D.C., however, trouble is brewing.  Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) is launching a campaign against the tobacco industry, one that Nick has been appointed to combat in public debate.  There is also a young reporter named Heather (Katie Holmes) who has been getting closer and more intimate with Nick, though it might be a front to unveil the secrets of the trade.  Eventually all of the story lines come together to powerfully affect Nick’s life.

Also at risk are Nick’s only friends, Polly (Maria Bello), lobbyist for alcohol producers, and Bobby (David Koechner), lobbyist for gun rights.  The three of them meet regularly to discuss how their industries are responsible for the deaths of numerous Americans each year.  The last thing they want is the secret power of lobbyists revealed to the world.

Some of the film is thrilling in its subversiveness, especially when Nick is describing how you only have to make your opponent look like a fool, you don’t have to say anything positive about your position.  The ideals Nick espouses, about thinking for yourself and making your own decisions, are basic American rights and something the government should not restrict.  Especially when it comes to cigarettes.  The scenes in Hollywood, talking about how to have movie stars smoke in their films, are delightfully satirical, probably all the more so for being slightly true, I wouldn’t doubt.

At times, however, the tone is uneven.  There are too many plot threads, and some seem rushed and brushed-over.  Hopping between family scenes and the business world of adults also falters, as the pacing doesn’t seem right.  For having an all-star cast, it is surprising how little some of the actors are used.  Some of their characters are simply drawn and only show one dimension.  Overall, though, the film works, and that’s what is important.  There are small touches of Reitman’s directorial stylishness thrown-in, but they aren’t as refined or mature as they are in Up in the Air (after he overused some of the quirkiness in Juno).  Thank You For Smoking is an interesting film, with an interesting premise that, even if it remains the least important of Reitman’s films, still deserves attention.

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