Thank You For Smoking (2006)

20 Mar

thank-you-for-smoking

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if containing each of these elements in one film sounds risky in the slightest:

  • Pro-smoking lobbyist as our charming protagonist
  • Environmentalist U.S. Senator as a sleazy villain
  • Smoking endorsements, even in front of children
  • Manipulation to the masses is a sport
  • Death tolls leading to long-lasting friendships

“Thank You For Smoking” was Jason Reitman’s 2006 satirical comedy that featured all of those things and more. It cuts its subjects slowly and delicately with a knife instead of bludgeoning them to near-death, and as a result, it’s a brilliant satire with a deep layer of appreciation of human nature hidden underneath risqué words and ideas that would have caused (and probably are causing) more people in our modern PC society to discuss it further.

Our main character is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). He’s a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, speaking on behalf of cigarettes, but he’s also speaking for something more: freedom. Freedom of speech and of choice, particularly. And he’s so good at what he does that anyone listening to him and even about to argue with him is left speechless. The film opens with his guest appearance on “The Joan Lunden Show,” alongside a teenage boy suffering lung cancer and a representative of a Vermont Senator. Naylor is in the spotlight and on the spot, but he is able to win an audience over through his charm and his speech. How does he do it? He states that Big Tobacco could never profit off of the kid’s death and that they’d be losing a customer. “It’s in our best interest to keep him alive and smoking,” he says. He even goes as far as to say the representative and the Senator he represents are using this “Cancer Boy” to prove their points against smoking, or as he puts it, they’re “trafficking in human misery.”

And…he’s actually right! Later in the film, the Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) balls out the representative (Todd Louiso) for not finding a “Cancer Boy” who’s more “hopeless.” He’s Naylor’s archrival, trying to argue a point to the people that should be simple: smoking is bad. But he’s no more manipulative than the tobacco industry—he just uses different methods of manipulation to the public.

That’s right—Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist, is the hero of “Thank You For Smoking” and Finistirre, a Senator promoting healthy living, is our villain. How often does that happen? And get this—Finistirre tries to force people to see things his way, while Naylor simply convinces them.

Naylor dines once a week with two friends, alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and firearms lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). They call themselves the M.O.D. Squad; M.O.D. standing for Merchants of Death. Sometimes, they argue over which of their products cause more deaths per year. This may be the only argument that Naylor even comes close to conceding over.

But no matter. He still has children to spread the pro-smoking message across to, such as when he visits his son Joey’s (Cameron Bright) class on Career Day and counter-argues with a girl whose mother says “cigarettes kill”—“Is your mommy a doctor?”

Naylor also meets with media executives, such as Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), to further get the message across. This includes Jeff’s idea for incorporating smoking in a futuristic science-fiction film (he chooses the future because he believes in a coming world were smokers and nonsmokers can live together in harmony). (By the way, I love this dialogue exchange between Naylor and Jeff: “Cigarettes in space? […] But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?” Pause. “Probably…But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. You know, ‘Thank God we invented the…you know, whatever, device.’” I would like to see a whole film about Jeff.)

But there’s something else to Naylor, and that’s his relationship with his son. He’s great at what he does, which is frowned upon by many, but he also wants to be a good father to Joey. Some of the more eye-opening moments for Naylor come when Joey accompanies him in a business trip in California so he can see what his father does for a living. Naylor’s moral center comes into play as he teaches Joey what he’s really trying to get across, which is that it’s a duty to educate people, warn them about the dangers of any substance they’re interested in, and let him choose for themselves whether or not they’ll follow the advice. He says it’s all about freedom and liberty.

The film addresses that cigarettes are addictive, easily available, and profitable, but it does address the dangers of smoking as well (the most obvious being lung cancer). And while the message and the people condoning the message are seen as very dangerous to society, it’s hard to argue against it because of how charming and likable Naylor is. Played brilliantly by Aaron Eckhart, Naylor is manipulative, charismatic, and also has his morals, especially when it comes to raising his son. True, his ethics may be questionable and not precisely clear, but they do come across in his own way as valuable. This creates a conflict for him as he sometimes has to decide what’s right or wrong, especially at a low point in his life when he has to say the right thing at a congressional hearing at which he goes one-on-one with Finistirre. But what is “the right thing?”

You’d think this would lead to a predictable conclusion during which Naylor sees the error of his ways and changes the world around him or something, right? It’s not as easy as that. His cross-examination to Finistirre’s arguments is the result of a decision he makes that is more or less the same message he’s been getting across before, but it’s more grounded, less morally vague, and even valuable. I won’t say how he manages to pull it off, but it’s handled in such an intelligent way that takes brilliant writing to truly pull off. It also gets the film’s true message across, which is that we should be allowed to do what we want but we should also educate those who look up to us and hope they make good choices.

Oh, and if you think the film does truly endorse smoking, take this fact into consideration: no one in the entire movie is seen smoking.

What does this mean? That the film is truly against smoking? That it’s hypocritical in that sense? I think it’s the film’s way of offering a suggestion that whatever the film’s audience is going to get from it is neither correct nor incorrect, meaning that we can debate about it from different viewpoints, but each viewpoint is our own. “Thank You For Smoking” leaves everything up to its viewer.

I think “Thank You For Smoking” is a comic masterpiece. It took chances with its subject matter, it’s well-crafted and tightly-edited (I may have mentioned a lot of plot, but there’s even more to this 90-minute film, if you can believe it), it’s very funny but also knows to lighten up on its dramatic portions, it’s brilliant in the way it uses smoking as a representation for the risks people are going to subject themselves to but have a right to, and it has a main character who’s exactly like that—maybe we’re better off without him, but we have a right to listen to what he has to say. It also has a wonderful cast. Aside from Eckhart as Naylor, I already mentioned William H. Macy, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, and Cameron Bright, but there’s also Robert Duvall as founder of Big Tobacco, J.K. Simmons as Naylor’s shouting boss, Sam Elliott as the original Marlboro Man dying of cancer, and Katie Holmes as a sexy reporter who gets the scoop on Naylor, and they all do terrific work here. The true stars of the film, however, are Jason Reitman’s direction and Aaron Eckhart’s performance. This is the best film of either of their careers and a film they may want to show to their kids some day and see what they choices they make after seeing it.

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