How do you defend that which is indefensible? It’s a question that has been applied to matters legal, political, and business-oriented over the years. If it is your job to do this, you can be assured that stress, anger, and even hatred will be part of your everyday existence. Consider the case of those who lobby on behalf of cigarette companies. We all know cigarettes are dangerous. The tobacco companies know they’re dangerous too. However, to admit so would seriously damage their business, and so they must put on a public charade of disbelief. Someone must be sent, like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, into the public eye to defend something that any sane, logical person would recognize as indisputably hazardous. Author Christopher Buckley directly addressed this idea in his hilarious novel “Thank You For Smoking.” The book was one of the few to actually make me laugh out loud when I read it. Buckley beautifully satirized the pressures placed on a character whose job is to confuse the public when it comes to the truth.
For the film adaptation, Aaron Eckhart takes on the role of Nick Naylor, professional tobacco lobbyist. In the opening scene, he appears on a daytime talk show, where he is seated next to a teenage boy who contracted cancer from cigarettes. Nick calmly asserts that the companies he represents would never sell the boy something that would kill him, because it’s in their own best interests to keep him alive and smoking.
That kind of chutzpah earns Nick praise from his boss P.B. (J.K. Simmons) and the company’s owner (Robert Duvall). However, it also makes him a target for Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), who is leading an initiative to have a skull and crossbones placed on every pack of cigarettes, along with the word “POISON” in big letters. Nick also attracts the attention of radical kidnappers (who strip him and place nicotine patches all over his body) and a reporter named Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), whom Nick seduces in more ways than one.
So does he really believe the things he’s saying? According to Nick, it doesn’t matter. He takes his son Joey (Cameron Bright) along on a trip to Hollywood where, in an effort to boost sagging sales, he works with a high-powered agent (Rob Lowe) to increase smoking in movies. The idea is that if big stars like Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones are seen smoking, impressionable audience members will follow suit. When Joey questions his father’s job, Nick compares himself to a criminal attorney and points out that everyone who is accused of wrongdoing has a right to a good defense. Father and son then practice the idea by debating whether chocolate is better than vanilla. “You haven’t convinced me,” Joey says afterward. Nick replies: “I didn’t have to. I proved that you were wrong, and that makes me right.”
As with any book-based movie, Thank You For Smoking trims away some of the events of the novel and compresses others. As written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman (whose father Ivan is responsible for classic film comedies like Ghostbusters and Stripes), the satiric heart of the story is nevertheless perfectly preserved. Although you can’t deal with this topic without political overtones, the movie itself doesn’t necessarily take sides. It likes Nick and even has some respect for the ideology behind his argument, if not necessarily the content of it. If anything, the movie attempts to answer a basic question: Who are these people and how do they live with themselves?
Some of the funniest scenes involve the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad. Nick has regular lunches with two other lobbyists. Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) represents the alcohol industry, while Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) is a gun lobbyist. They discuss the pressures of their jobs, compare the number of victims who die from their products each year, and share open admiration for each other’s lobbying techniques. The idea – and it’s a scathing one – is that you defend the indefensible by setting up a whole system to alleviate personal guilt. Nick at one point brings up the Nuremberg defense: “we were just doing our jobs.”
There are lots of big laughs in the film as we watch Nick Naylor just doing his job. The finale takes place at a congressional hearing, where Finistirre grills Nick, expecting to demolish him. It’s not that simple, though. At some level, people like Nick are rebels. They delight in opposing the status quo. There is a natural high that comes from refusing to back down. Aaron Eckhart understands this idea and does a superb job bringing the central character to life. We like Nick, not just because he’s charming and charismatic but because he’s so joyful in his political incorrectness. We can also see that he’s a good father at heart. When he gives advice to Joey, what he’s really saying is “think for yourself and don’t let anyone else tell you what to believe.”
Thank You For Smoking has terrific supporting performances across the board, including one from Sam Elliott as the original Marlboro Man who now suffers from cancer. The tobacco companies, of course, try to buy him off before he goes to the press to renounce his association with their product. It takes an incredible amount of gall to do this, but then again, Nick Naylor is made of gall.
It has been said that the best way to understand something is to make fun of it. Thank You For Smoking looks for laughs in a topic that is (literally) deadly serious. It finds them, and at the same time it also finds meaning. People like Nick Naylor spin facts to benefit themselves and the organizations they represent. Whether or not they believe what they’re saying is irrelevant; what’s more important to them is that they have a right to argue whatever side of an issue they choose. They live by the ideal that it’s better to have two sides to an argument than it is to have only one. Even if one side is truth and the other fiction.
( 1/2 out of four)
Thank You For Smoking is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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