My friend JoJo was a debate champion. He still loves to boast of the verbal beatdowns that he delivered upon his lesser opponents, even reducing some of them to tears.
“If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
JoJo didn’t say that, but he could have. That’s the kind of fatherly advice that big tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor actually gives his son in the new satiric comedy “Thank You for Smoking.” Nick, the self-proclaimed Colonel Sanders of nicotine, lives for the rush of a good tongue lashing. Like smoking, it’s a very addictive thing, Just ask JoJo–he hasn’t debated in six years, but his old war stories never seem to stop coming.
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“Thank You for Smoking,” adapted from Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel by writer/director Jason Reitman, is at its best when it lets Nick loose in the savage game of verbal one-upsmanship. As a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a company formed by the cigarette industry itself to “investigate” the ill effects of smoking, Naylor’s relish for taking up an indefensible opinion is obvious. He’s so good at his job that when he appears on a daytime talk show to champion tobacco, he gets a young cancer patient to shake his hand on TV.
Aaron Eckhart, with his exaggerated chin and cheshire grin, turns Nick into tornado of bravado. Like the talk show audience, he wins us over with enthusiasm while holding fast to his own amorality. His confidence is at an all-time high when he convinces his ex-wife to let him take his son (Cameron Bright) to Hollywood as he shills for cigarette product placement in movies. When attractive reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) has dinner with Nick for an expose she’s writing about him, they end up bonking the night away.
Some of the movie’s funniest and darkest scenes involve a gun lobbyist (David Koechner) and alcohol industry spokesperson (Maria Bello), who, along with Nick, make up the secret lunchtime group called the MOD Squad, or, “merchants of death.” Besides having the funniest and most uncomfortable laughs in the film, these three take precise aim at our own destructively-obsessed culture without ever getting heavy-handed—a tricky act to be sure.
All of this mirth and merriment comes at the expense of Nick having anything resembling a soul. It is almost as if the plot and character development are nagging afterthoughts, actually getting in the way of the satire. Nick’s justification (or mock justification, it’s hard to tell which) of selling death for a living comes off as too simple-minded for someone as clever as he, and as perfect as Eckhart is in the role, Nick’s growth doesn’t really suit him.
Rob Lowe stands out as one of many bit players (along with William H. Macy, Sam Elliott, and Robert Duvall) who appear briefly, have a great moment, and then disappear. Reitman shows a gift for comic timing by giving Nick’s cocky voice-over narration some shrewd, fast-paced interpretation (like Nick crushing a home run out of the park) and some funny onscreen graphics (like the MOD’s “vice icons” appearing above their heads). Oddly enough, though, some scenes stall and creep on just a little too long, like a “Saturday Night Live” skit that doesn’t know when to end.
If JoJo were debating the merits of “Thank You for Smoking,” he would reinforce its relentless energy and pace, and the star-making turn by Eckhart. On the other hand, he could just as easily impress with the other side of the argument, pointing out the film’s trite stab at moral redemption. The one thing I am sure of is that, like Nick Naylor, he would have an equally good time either way.