Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor
Maria Bello as Polly Bailey
Cameron Bright as Joey Naylor
Adam Brody as Jack
Sam Elliott as Lorne Lutch
Katie Holmes as Heather Holloway
David Koechner as Bobby Jay Bliss
William H. Macy as Senator Ortolan Finistirre
J.K. Simmons as BR
Robert Duvall as Captain
Kim Dickens as Jill Naylor
Rob Lowe as Jeff Megall
Todd Louiso as Ron Goode
Directed by Jason Reitman
Jason Reitman’s directorial debut hits every sharp cynical note on the head to deliver a winning black comedy. Its satirical exploration of the tobacco industry covers every angle with deep irony with a capital I.
As the spokesperson for Big Tobacco, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) spends his life defending cigarettes and the tobacco companies from those who try to keep people from smoking. When a Vermont senator (William Macy) wants to put a poison label on cigarettes, Naylor must use all of his wits and charm to keep his job at the Academy of Tobacco Studios, by launching new campaigns exclaiming the virtues of nicotine.
Though I’ve never read Christopher Buckley’s novel on which this black comedy is based, you have to give credit to Jason Reitmanyes, he’s the son of director Ivan Reitmanfor having the foresight of getting this movie out there at a time that couldn’t be any more perfect with all of the talk of unscrupulous lobbying in Washington.
Of course, we all know that cigarettes are bad for us, even those addicted to the nicotine nails, but there’s something really funny about the movie’s look at the inner workings of the tobacco industry that covers some of the same ground as “The Insider” but in a completely tongue-in-cheek manner.
We’re introduced to Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor during a television talk show appearance where he’s defending the virtues of smoking as a cancer-stricken boy looks on. His voice-over claims that he is one of the most hated men in America because his job requires a good deal of “moral flexibility.” Sure enough, he does everything possible to make us want to hate him as he tries to convince kids to smoke. As he starts spending time with his teen son, he starts gaining a conscience and begins to realize that he needs to take the repercussions of his job more seriously. It becomes even more obvious when he’s forced to give up smoking after a traumatic kidnapping experience, and when he sleeps with an unscrupulous journalist, played with irony by Katie Holmes, she uses his pillow talk as research for an expose on the tobacco industry, disgracing Nick and getting him fired for his indiscretions. That doesn’t stop a Vermont senator, ably played by William H. Macy, from targeting Nick in his own campaign against the tobacco companies.
As the centrifugal force of this cynical dark comedy, Nick Naylor may be one of the strongest anti-hero characters in a film in a long time. Most of the movie follows Nick’s travels around the country, meeting all sorts of outrageous characters, as he represents the “Academy of Tobacco Studies.” His boss, played by the always great J.K. Simmons in a role not unlike his J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” movies, sends Nick to Hollywood to convince an agent to get actors to smoke in sci-fi movie financed by Big Tobacco, and later, Nick must try to buy out the former Marlboro Man, who is suing the tobacco companies after getting cancer. Nick actually comes across quite well when compared to some of the crooked and pretentious characters he meets, and it doesn’t take long for you to start feeling bad for him because of the things he’s forced to do for the job.
Despite a few slower moments, the script is hilarious in its ability to take some of the ideas so far out into left field, but it’s the cast Reitman has pulled together which makes his debut such an impressive feat. Just when you think that Adam Brody’s kiss-ass assistant is the funniest thing you’ll see in the movie, we get Rob Lowe as Jeff Megall, the most pretentious Hollywood talent agent imaginable, whose office at Entertainment Global Offices is covered in Asian artwork to try to give him more depth. Of course, getting Robert Duvall to play “The Captain,” the terminally ill head of a tobacco company, must have been quite a coup, but even that is trumped by the perfectly-cast Sam Elliot as the disgruntled former Marlboro Man. Cameron Bright, who has already played the creepy kid in two other movies this year, is far better as Nick’s son, using what he learns from his father to win school debates.
Unquestionably, the film’s funniest moments are when Nick is having lunch with his two compatriots in the MOD Squad (short for “Merchants of Death”)Maria Bello as the spokesperson for alcohol and David Koechner as a gun lobbyistoffering some of the film’s most ironic laughs, as they try to one-up each other by boasting about the number of people dying by their causes. Koechner, who most will remember from “Anchorman” and “The Office,” steals the movie in these scenes with his great delivery.
If the inside jokes, clever quips and outrageous characters aren’t enough to keep you entertained, the whole thing is pulled together by the unmistakable sounds of composer Rolf Kent, who also did the scores for “Sideways” and “The Matador.”
The Bottom Line:
The cynical humor that drives “Thank You for Smoking” won’t be for everyone, but not since Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” has there been a character so despicable and lovable at the same time, and the potentially controversial subject matter is handled with the same edgy, biting wit that made Robert Altman’s “The Player” so much fun.
Thank You for Smoking opens in select cities on Friday.