Thank You for Smoking sets tobacco culture ablaze

By Matt Zakosek

Nick Naylor is scum. As embodied by Aaron Eckhart—somewhere between his saintly boyfriend from Erin Brockovich and walking personification of evil from In the Company of Men—the guy is pleasant enough company for an hour and a half, but you’re not going to remember much of him once the final credits roll.

Naylor is a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, or, in his words, the “Colonel Sanders of nicotine.” During the course of the film, he will refer affectionately to teenage smokers, bribe an outspoken opponent with a suitcase full of money, and basically bemoan the fact that the entire nation isn’t lighting up. Oh, and he’ll also try to be a good role model for his son, Joey (Cameron Bright).

The problem is that Naylor is clearly redeemable, so there isn’t much at stake here. We know he’s much cooler than the politician who decries him, Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), because Finistirre wears socks under his sandals. We know he’s a good dad to Joey because, well…actually, he’s kind of a bad dad, but he says threatening things to his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, and that shows he cares.

For the most part, the satire—based on the novel by Christopher F. Buckley—works, although the material is a little dated. What about the indoor smoking ban that recently hit Chicago? I would have also liked to see the filmmakers take a shot at propagandistic rabble-rousers like—like in the opening scene of Clerks, when Dante realizes his customers are being led away from cigarettes mainly so they’ll purchase more gum.

A pivotal plot point involving Naylor and an unmarked van is hysterical; to divulge any more would be to destroy the delicious absurdity of the scene. Visual flourishes are peppered playfully throughout, like when graphics (a bottle of booze, a gun) introduce Naylor’s lobbyist friends from the alcohol and firearms industries, or when a blurry, amoeba-like mob of reporters approach Naylor outside of a courthouse.

During the film, I kept track of little details that surprised or amused me; . Naylor’s company owns a plane called Tobacco One. Before a class presentation, Joey implores his father, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.” And Naylor lets loose with all sorts of one-liners. The public service he’s performing is really “population control.” He possesses a “moral flexibility that goes beyond most people.” And his parting words to a lover, while too ribald to repeat here, provide a satisfying denouement to the film’s best subplot.

But too often the humor is overly broad or unfocused. Adam Brody’s cameo as Jack, a sycophantic personal assistant, is funny, but what is he really demonstrating? That people in L.A. are shallow? When Jack’s boss, Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) notes that the only characters who smoke in modern movies are “the usual RAVs—Russians, Arabs, and villains,” the film is biting off more than it can chew. Focus on one issue, guys.

The cast’s standout is Robert Duvall, who infuses his dying tobacco patriarch with a sense of stubborn decency. Katie Holmes lacks the gravity to portray even a cub reporter. Maria Bello, so good in A History of Violence, is wasted in a bit role, but her lines fly fast and funny; some network ought to give her a sitcom. And I’m probably going to hell for saying this, but 13-year-old Cameron Bright’s Joey is nothing special. The precocious-tot bit is lifted from Jerry Maguire, but we’re never sure if Joey is really that smart or if he simply reflects the adults around him. At times, his dialogue is just plain unrealistic. What kid learns about free markets at such a young age?

But the real disappointment is Aaron Eckhart. His big break came from Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, in which he played the vilest of characters; after that performance, how can Nick Naylor possibly compete? Naylor claims to be hated, but all we see is him turning on the charm. In Eckhart’s hands, that too often turns into smarm.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its insight into the tobacco industry. A double feature of this film with The Insider could keep a high-school ethics course busy for weeks. I’d never realized that the livelihood of tobacco farmers is a key component of the cigarette-manufacturing debate; some of the families have been working their land for generations. And while the final question posed to Naylor by Senator Finistirre is utterly predictable, the issue of personal responsibility is one the film never completely reconciles, nor should it.

Thank You for Smoking wants to be revelatory, tapping into the jadedness of our consumer culture. It’s cigarettes that Naylor sells, but that’s beside the point. (In a clever reversal at the end, it becomes completely irrelevant.) But the film is guilty of too many sentimental excesses itself. The music swells dramatically during Naylor’s nominal setbacks, cueing the audience to respond sympathetically. Why do we give a damn about Naylor? Because of his adorable little moppet of a son. And dammit, if there’s anything worse than Big Tobacco, it’s a weak father figure!

It’s weird to leave a film wishing that the main character was more despicable. But if a story is going to have an antihero, it has to go all the way. It’s this failure to fully commit to its own premise that keeps Thank You for Smoking from reaching its potential.