Spin the Cigarette
From the beginning, Thank You for Smoking feels like an exercise in cleverness. It begins on the set of a daytime talk show where the guests are a cancer-stricken kid, a couple of anti-smoking activists, and the man considered to be the enemy: Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), tobacco industry spokesman and lobbyist. The showdown is presented as glibly comedic and, before long, we hear the voiceover narration of the protagonist -- as it turns out, it's Nick -- who goes on to explain who he is and what he does in Fight Club-esque fashion, complete with a rundown of varying smoking statistics accompanied by creative visuals.
We know we're in for a humorist's essay because the subject is the always hot-button topic of smoking and the director is first-time feature helmer Jason Reitman, the son of a famous maker of funny films, Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters). Although Thank You for Smoking's tone is familiar and easy to settle into right away, it does present the danger of going an easy route to get the laughs. Dripping with cynicism and populated with smart alecks, it also feels primed to pat the backs of liberal-thinking viewers.
But the movie does boast a couple of potent weapons. The first is Eckhart, back in slime mode and loving it. I think everyone was just waiting for him to star in another role as malevolently juicy as Chad of In the Company of Men, and although Nick Naylor is not nearly the embodiment of conscience-less evil that Chad was, he may be as close a character as we'll get. He's a spin doctor whose job is to figure out ways to keep America smoking, and he doesn't have a second thought about the implications of it. He even lunches regularly with a wine lobbyist (Maria Bello) and a gun lobbyist (David Koechner) -- as a group they deem themselves "The M.O.D. Squad," "M.O.D." for "Merchants of Death" -- exchanging strategies and discussing the latest crises they face.
The film's second weapon involves the subversiveness of its theme, which isn't what one might've expected -- the movie isn't particularly against cigarettes. Thus, any danger of anti-smoking preachiness is sidelined in lieu of an illustration of the influence of information dissemination. Since much of the movie is about Nick explaining the finer points of spin and debate to his son (Cameron Bright), it makes an argument that the more one knows about how information reaches us, the more defenses we are able to mount against it, and the better one will be able to glean truth from anyone's words.
Eckhart's enthusiasm is required to lift the film from its own rather low confidence in its material. This is evidenced in the aforementioned tendency to overstate itself -- both in its concerns and its humor. Eckhart, though, consistently brings the movie to the viewer's level, allowing the sarcasm to go down smoothly, never leaving the audience behind. So effective is his performance that one feels entirely in league with someone who would normally be a villain. We'd root for him even if his opponents in the film weren't portrayed in their own various shades of simplistic villainy.
It's an interesting set-up, then -- the style of the movie is conspicuously manipulative, pushing the buttons of independent thinkers, but Eckhart is there to make sure no one feels stupid in the process. And it's all for the sake of stating that information, and the way it's presented, is power. Tricky stuff indeed, and I wouldn't say Reitman pulls it off completely, but I have to admit that Thank You for Smoking emerges as a fun and amusing movie in the end.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for language and some sexual content.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.