One would think that a big tobacco lobbyist wouldn’t be worth anyone’s sympathy, except maybe to other smokers. Even still, their job is a thankless one. How does someone justify pushing a product on people that is proven to cause cancer?
Nick Naylor, played with voracious glee by Aaron Eckhart, does it because he’s good at it. “Thank You for Smoking” is the story of how Naylor tries to spin positive vibes for a company that never seems to get out of the proverbial frying pan.
Naylor is the alpha male, smooth-talking incarnate of Ron Popeil. The man could sell anything. He’s the type of guy you attended high school with that starred on the football team, was the class president, got straight A’s and tried to date your little sister at the same time. He knows he’s better than you and he’s not even trying.
While lobbying on behalf of big tobacco, Naylor often tangles with Senator Finistirre from Vermont, played by William H. Macy. Naylor reduces Finistirre’s cronies to rubble, melts them down and uses them to pave his driveway which he runs over frequently. Not literally, but you get the idea.
However, Naylor isn’t quite the all-encompassing ball of sleaze you would think he is. He’s constantly juggling his work with trying to be a great dad to his son, Joey, played by up-and-comer Cameron Bright. He wants to prove to his son that he’s a decent person, so he takes him on a trip to Hollywood while on a business trip trying to put cigarettes back in movies.
The film is essentially a father-son story, the message being that you need to decide for yourself on issues even though people will try to sway you one way or the other.
Naylor tells his son that you are never wrong if you argue correctly. This makes Nick a hero to his son, knowing that his dad is capable of arguing his way into anything he wants.
Director Jason Reitman, son of renowned director Ivan Reitman, makes his debut with “Thank You for Smoking,” and shows a deft eye for dark comedy all the while making his characters likable.
Reitman stages get-togethers for Nick and his crew, the self proclaimed M.O.D squad (Merchants Of Death), which includes two other lobbyists, one for alcohol, played by Maria Bello, and one for firearms, played by David Koechner.
They gather at a local eatery, lament the hardships of their jobs and offer up death tolls as bragging rights. These scenes are both sharp and revealing at the same time. You laugh at their reckless dealings in other people’s lives, but they’re probably talking about you or people you may know.
The film’s bread and butter are its performances. Eckhart, returning from obscurity after misfires such as 2002’s “The Core,” makes his strongest case for leading-man status to date. Wearing a smug boyish grin, Eckhart struts through his scenes with a cool-under-pressure swagger reminiscent of Clark Gable with a mean streak.
The film also gets a boost from Rob Lowe and Adam Brody as an Asian design-obsessed Hollywood agent and his shameless assistant, respectively. J.K. Simmons seems to be reprising his J. Jonah Jameson role from the “Spider-Man” films, but at least he’s sticking with what works.
“Thank You for Smoking,” thankfully, isn’t a preachy film. It neither condones nor endorses people to light up. Rather, it just asks that you not let people make your decisions for you. You have a say and a choice. Whether or not you go and see this witty, intelligent and devastatingly funny new film is entirely up to you, but I strongly recommend it.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.