Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a spin master. He travels around the country defending the tobacco industry as its main spokesperson, making sure their voice is heard along with the cancer survivors, health advocates and doctors. He deserves every penny he earns. Appearing on the daytime talk show "Joan", he manages to get a 15 year old cancer victim to side with him. Appearing at his son's career day, he proves to a little girl that her mother is wrong about cigarettes. He does his job, and he does it well. Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) proposes putting a new graphic label on all packages of cigarettes, a none-to-subtle skull and crossbones. This stirs the debate up, causing Nick to look for new alternatives. He decides to enlist the help of Hollywood to make smoking sexy again, prompting a trip to Los Angeles, to meet with the most powerful agent in town, Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe). He decides to take his son (Cameron Bright) along, for the experience.
"Thank You For Smoking", directed by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan ("Ghostbusters", "Stripes", "Twins", "Junior") and based on the popular book by Christopher Buckley, is a very funny film.
In "In the Company of Men", Aaron Eckhart played a despicable man, but we still enjoyed spending time with him. It says a lot for his acting ability that he was able to charm us into liking his character, despite all of his flaws and bad qualities. Nick Naylor is a variation on this theme. As he meets with various people, he works hard to convince them the tobacco industry is not evil. A large part of Nick's likeability lies in the relationship he has with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright). Joey is at an impressionable age and Nick is not above trying to persuade him that smoking and tobacco are not bad. But he realizes that as a parent, everything he says is soaked up by his son. Nick talks to Joey about the art of argument, trying to explain to him what he does for a living. But Nick's character is more than just a father. As a spokesman for Big Tobacco, he is also trying to persuade his son that what he does is not bad. He seems proud when his son seems to be learning a little too much about his father's life and job. He knows he has to be careful about what he tells his son, but he isn't above trying to slip in some backhand promotion of the industry at his son's career day or in casual conversation. It almost seems as though he is letting his own spin get the better of him.
When he meets with his friends, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, "A History of Violence"), the spokesperson for the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Hoechner), the spokesperson for the firearms industry, they frequently argue about whose job is tougher, based on the number of deaths caused every year. (Hint: Nick will always win this argument.) They also sit around giving each other help for their upcoming battles. For instance, Polly dreads an upcoming story by Diane Sawyer on alcohol fetal syndrome. How can she spin that? When the two friends find out Sawyer will be doing the interview, they conclude Polly is screwed. Why? Because Sawyer will hug the mother she is interviewing, getting the sympathy.
Throughout the film, Nick walks a tightrope. He is charming, well-spoken and enjoys his job, but his job is to defend Big Tobacco, so he isn't beyond spinning the truth. Eckhart does a masterful job of making this character funny, intelligent, smarmy and evil.
There are a lot of stand outs in the large, well-known cast. William H. Macy is hilarious as the senator from Vermont. In one scene, we watch the senator, sitting at his desk, mulling over a problem, surrounded by bottles of maple syrup and cheese figurines and advertising mascots and wearing Birkenstock sandals and thick socks, all made in his home state. Rob Lowe is very funny as the uber-agent Jeff Megall. Clearly modeled after Michael Ovitz, we get a glimpse of the character even before we meet him as his assistant gives Nick and his son a tour of the new, Asian-themed office, complete with Zen-garden keeper. When we meet Jeff, we realize he has taken the Asian thing way too far. Adam Brody (TV's "The OC") is very good as Jeff's hyperactive assistant. Robert Duvall makes an appearance as The Captain, the oldest surviving member of Big Tobacco and their leader. He has made a fiefdom for in himself in Winston- Salem and Nick can't help but be impressed. Sam Elliot plays the original Marlboro Man, now wracked with cancer, but not beyond considering a little payout. Katie Holmes is also very good as Heather Holloway, a reporter doing a piece on Nick. She has some complexity and guts and isn't above sleeping with someone to get some inside information. Her character is a little unexpected; sexual, ruthless, cunning.
Director Reitman does a very good job of balancing all of these diverse characters. Each and every one could easily be the basis of a film on their own, so there is a real danger of losing some of these major personalities in the shuffle. Each character is very distinct and provides a unique part of the overall effect. With all of these well-known actors, it seems remarkable each makes a lasting impression, but they are all memorable, unique and interesting. More importantly, just about all of them are both good and bad. From Nick on down, every character realizes they are on a slippery slope and it is just a matter of how much work they put into slowing down the inevitable slide.
Reitman also seems to have a good ear for dialogue. The arguments, conversations and debates he writes for these characters are always amusing, at the least, and quite often, hilarious. He seems to have the most fun when the three representatives from alcohol, tobacco and firearms, are sitting around at lunch, debating whose job is the toughest. But he also has fun taking pot shots at politics, the movies, education and more.
Very often, a comedy will start off great, throwing jokes left and right, setting up characters and the story with quick shots, creating a fast momentum, causing us to miss some of the jokes because we are laughing through them. Then, the story kicks in and things slow down a bit. Hopefully, towards the end of the film, things pick up again, creating a momentum similar to the beginning. Often, films slow down too much in the middle and don't regain the momentum through the end, leaving us feeling let down, giving us a less than favorable impression of the film. "Smoking" sidesteps most of these problems, starting at a fast clip, causing us to laugh through many jokes. However, it does slow down a bit as it begins to deal with the mechanics of the story and then picks up again for the last act. Thankfully, it doesn't fall victim to its own early success and manages a fairly consistent feel through acts two and three. But the film is a little unbalanced. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just a predictable thing. It would be nice to go to a comedy and laugh your head off consistently throughout, leaving the theater exhausted. "Smoking" is very funny, well-written and well-made, but it gives us a chance to rest and recuperate.
"Thank You for Smoking" is not really a polemic against smoking or the tobacco industry (although, there are certainly some fine jokes at the expense of both), but the main focus is on spin and how it affects many aspects of our life and how it has come to control our lives. Seek out this film and you will watch one of the better examples of the comedy genre we have seen in some time.