Cigarette companies and their lobbyists come under fire in this ambitious political satire. Aaron Eckhart is the unscrupulous spin-doctor paid to make a case for smoking a fag. Also in the cast are Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall, William H Macy, Rob Lowe and Maria Bello. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
American political lobbyists are the targets of the funny and intelligent satire, Thank You For Smoking. Specifically it’s after the lobbyists who work for the tobacco industry. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, the star spokesman for the Academy Of Tobacco Studies, an organisation financed by Big Tobacco and dedicated to fighting the pro-smoking cause in the media.
This is not the most fashionable cause to be fighting. Big Tobacco has a public image on a par with a ring of child molesters and by being its man in the spotlight, Nick has become one of the most hated public figures in America. He deals with this by hanging out with a pair of equally despised fellow lobbyists (Maria Bello and David Koechner) who represent the alcohol and arms industries. The trio call themselves the M.O.D. Squad, M.O.D. standing for Merchants Of Death, and they make sick jokes about which of their clients kills the most Americans.
Despite his unpopularity, Nick isn’t thinking of quitting. He’s well paid and he’s appreciated by his superiors (Robert Duvall and JK Simmons). More than anything else, he simply likes to argue. Nick loves debate, or at least he loves to win debates, which he’ll do by any tactic that will work. That might be telling a TV chat show audience that Big Tobacco is the best friend of a young boy dying of lung cancer. After all, it’s in the cigarette-makers’ interests to keep him alive and smoking, whereas the anti-smoking lobby will benefit from the child’s death. As Nick tells his young son (Cameron Bright), if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.
A series of opportunities and crises arise to test Nick’s mettle. A potential public relations disaster looms when the original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) is diagnosed with cancer. A Hollywood studio head (Rob Lowe) says he’s willing to help make smoking cool again. An attractive young reporter (Katie Holmes) bats her eyelashes at Nick and tells him she wants to do a feature about him. A militant band of anti-smoking fanatics threatens Nick with death. And a senator from Vermont (William H Macy) introduces a bill to place a large skull and crossbones logo on every cigarette pack.
What surprised me most about Thank You For Smoking is that it’s not a tract. This is a film that handles a thorny issue intelligently and without bias. Besides Good Night And Good Luck, it’s the smartest issue movie for some time. I’d been expecting a Bowling For Columbine-style assault on the tobacco industry, which would probably have gone down well in the current climate. The movie does get in a good number of digs at Big Tobacco, many of them deserved, but it also saves some of its sharpest barbs for anti-smoking campaigners and it allows Nick Naylor to argue his case persuasively.
Many of his points are valid, particularly when he talks about freedom for adults to choose what they want to inhale. Although I don’t personally smoke, I think legislation like the recent UK law on smoking in public places goes far beyond protecting non-smokers and enters the realm of the state dictating personal lifestyles. Whether you agree with me or you think the Evil Weed can’t be demonised enough, you’ll find this movie is as fair and balanced as can be expected.
Don’t let me give you the idea that Thank You For Smoking is a worthy but dull political film. It’s not, it’s a comedy and one of the funniest you’ll see this year. It’s been adapted from a bestselling novel by debuting writer-director Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan, who proves first time out that he’s a very fine comedy director in his own right. His script cuts to the heart of the story and he tells it in a trim ninety minutes.
Reitman beings out the best in a superb cast. Aaron Eckhart has been good in a lot of films since Neil LaBute brought him to the attention of moviegoers ten years ago but this is the film that will make him a star. He’s sensational as Nick Naylor, fleshing out a very complex character who must be both completely amoral and a loveable guy. He’s well supported by some of Hollywood’s best character actors, old (Robert Duvall) and new (Maria Bello). Of the standouts, Rob Lowe and Adam Brody find original ways to play Hollywood ass-kissers and William H Macy is perfect as the cigarette-hating senator but for me the movie is stolen by David Koechner, who plays Nick’s gun-loving drinking buddy. He gets as many laughs in this as he did as the sports reporter in Anchorman. No one does comic rednecks quite like Koechner does and I don’t think there’s an actor as funny in movies today.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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