Benjamin’s Stash

“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That cigarette!” Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Katie Holmes, Academy Award winners J. K. Simmons, Robert Duvall and Academy Award nominee William H. Macy star in Thank You for Smoking.

Thank You for SmokingCast of Characters:
Nick Naylor – Aaron Eckhart
Polly Bailey – Maria Bello
Joey Naylor – Cameron Bright
Jack – Adam Brody
Lorne Lutch – Sam Elliott
Heather Holloway – Katie Holmes
Bobby Jay Bliss – David Koechner
Jeff Megall – Rob Lowe
Sen. Ortolan Finistirre – William H. Macy
BR – J. K. Simmons
The Captain – Robert Duvall

Director – Jason Reitman
Screenplay – Jason Reitman
Based on the novel Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley
Producer – David O. Sacks
Rated R for language and some sexual content

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Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the tobacco company’s best friend. As their handsome, smooth-talking master of spin and vice president of the “Academy for Tobacco Studies”, he is able to shut down the opposition with quick thinking and a smile.

With anti-tobacco campaigns mounting against them, particularly from Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), Naylor devises a PR offensive, with the help of Hollywood super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), to put the glamor back in cigarettes. His newfound notoriety, though, winds up putting a giant bullseye on him from politicians, reporters and anti-smoking zealots.

Based on political satirist Christopher Buckley’s (son of libertarian commentator William F. Buckley, Jr.) novel, Thank You for Smoking manages to do quite effectively what no one would think is possible. One, it plays Devil’s Advocate for the tobacco lobby, a group that I think is fair to say isn’t liked all that well (though the film’s great irony is that in a film that is all about smoking, not a single character is ever seen smoking). Two, it places their chief manipulator center stage and turns him from what most would think to be a shrewd merchant of death and into an empathetic, charming, albeit still shrewd, voice of reason.

Right from the start, Thank You for Smoking comes out swinging with its politically incorrect jabs as it opens with Joan Lunden interviewing tobacco lobby spokesman Nick Naylor, three anti-smoking campaigners and Robin Williger, aka “Cancer Kid”.

“Joan, how on Earth would Big Tobacco profit off the loss of this young man?”, Naylor asks. “I hate to think in such callous terms, but if anything we’d be losing a customer. It’s not only our hope but it’s in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking.”

You could say it takes some balls for a film to defend a group many see as nothing more than a soulless money grubbers (though there’s a term I like to give those that need a warning label to remind them cigarettes are unhealthy – idiots), but it’d be mistaken to see this film as defending the tobacco company or endorsing smoking. Not that it demonizes both either; that’s what all those dopey “truth” ads featuring Ned Gerblansky or Peter Frampton’s talk box are for. Instead, Thank You for Smoking is more a statement on personal choice and responsibility than an outright thumbs up for lighting up.

It’s also a terrific blueprint for truth-spinning. Right or wrong, any side of any issue can be turned into a winning argument with the right tactics. Take this argument between Naylor and his son for example.

“OK, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate, and I’m defending vanilla.”, Naylor begins. “Now if I were to say to you: ‘Vanilla is the best flavour ice-cream’, you’d say…”

“No, chocolate is.”

“Exactly, but you can’t win that argument so, I’ll ask you: So you think chocolate is the end-all and be-all of ice-cream, do you?”

“It’s the best ice-cream, I wouldn’t order any other.”

“Oh! So it’s all chocolate for you is it?”

“Yes, chocolate is all I need.”

“Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the defintion of liberty.”

“But that’s not what we’re talking about.”

“Ah! But that’s what I’m talking about.”

“… But you didn’t prove that vanilla was the best.”

“I didn’t have to. I proved that you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong I’m right.’

Writer/director Jason Reitman, in his feature film debut, maybe could’ve depended solely on his name to get by on a film career. If his last name sounds familiar, that’s ’cause it belongs to his father Ivan, the longtime director of such big hits as Meatballs, Stripes, Twins and both Ghostbusters films. It’d be easy for Jason to piggyback on the success of his papa, one of the broad comedy kings of the ’80s (tied with Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation director and frequent collaborator Harold Ramis), but thankfully Reitman isn’t content to just rest on his father’s laurels and chooses to establish his own identity, bringing a different style and tone than what we’ve seen from Ivan’s pictures.

Balancing slickly-edited style and substance, and moving the film at a feverish pace as quick as Nick’s tongue, Reitman equips the characters with razor-sharp dialogue that takes inspired shots at everyone and their brother – the tobacco company, media, lawyers, advertising agencies, politicians, health Nazis and agenda-seeking reporters – without overwhelming the picture. No one is left unscathed here, and Reitman ably finds the right level of absurdity in attacking the systems, be it the tobacco company that’s willing to mislead the public in order to sell its product, the bureaucratic bull-shitters on Capitol Hill and anti-smoking Jihadists who are willing to go to insane extremes to control individual choice, or the Hollywood hotshots who have nothing more than box office dollars flashing in their eyes.

It speaks well of Reitman as a filmmaker in how he’s able to bring aboard a cast this stellar. There are experienced filmmakers that would kill to have this much talent; at the time, Reitman was just a rookie in the feature film world. Save a miscast Katie Holmes (whose performance isn’t bad, but she doesn’t quite possess the edge needed to convincingly play a shrewd reporter capable of matching Nick’s skills in spin), everyone brings their A-game. Both Rob Lowe and J. K. Simmons steal every one of their scenes in hilarious fashion, the latter showing as usual how he’s one of the best there is in delivering a rant. William H. Macy is terrific as the arrogant anti-smoking senator leading the witch-hunt against Naylor and the tobacco company. Robert Duvall and Sam Elliott only appear briefly, but each turn in wonderful supporting work, the former as the mint julep-loving tobacco czar and the latter as the former face of Marlboro who’s now a bitter opponent of cigarettes after being diagnosed with cancer.

In some of the film’s best moments, Aaron Eckhart dines with his ATF lobbyist pals, Maria Bello for alcohol and David Koechner for firearms. Together, the three make up what they refer to as the Merchants of Death, aka the “M.O.D” Squad. Reitman’s barbs are at their fiercest during these scenes and the conversations between Eckhart, Bello and Koechner provide the film with a brutally honest gut-punch (one particular highlight of theirs is listening to them debate whose group claims the most deaths).

Here’s the thing about Eckhart. This may have been his breakout role, but he’s actually been in a number of films for around 10-15 years prior to this film’s release, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been a go-to leading man years before this film ’cause he should’ve been. Sure, turns in duds like The Core and Paycheck don’t help, but see his strong work in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors as evidence why.

There are roles that actors do well with, and then there are those born-to-play type roles that actors flat-out own. Eckhart most certainly flat-out owns the role of Nick Naylor. Showcasing all the charm in the world, Eckhart is suave, smooth and slick enough to win over even the most hardcore anti-smokers with just a smile. As David Spade says in Tommy Boy, this man could easily “sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves”.

Some have criticized the ending as Reitman copping out with a safe conclusion. I don’t necessarily see it that way. Reitman doesn’t make any changes in stance, nor does he compromise any characters, ultimately leaving both aspects up for the viewer to decide. Naylor’s the same guy at the end as he is at the beginning. At the end of the day, it was never quite about the cause with his line of work (though he does strongly believe in personal choice and responsibility for the individual). He’s simply good at what he does, and in his words, “it pays the mortgage”.

Is that him essentially selling his soul? You decide.

Cynical, unapologetically un-PC and filled to the brim with gleefully unethical characters, Jason Reitman’s blistering debut is a near perfect satire on the culture of spin that benefits greatly from Reitman’s sharp script and a strong all-star cast led by Aaron Eckhart in his breakout lead role. It’s not everyday we get a film that so effectively gets us to root for those who are publicly despised, but Reitman and Eckhart hit the nail on the head here.

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