The Surgeon General said something about Judge Neal Masri's review, but we weren't really paying attention.
Nick Naylor doesn't hide the truth, he filters it.
"We don't sell tic tacs for Christ's sake, we sell cigarettes! They're cool, and available and addictive. The job is almost done for us."—President of the Academy of Tobacco Studies
Facts of the Case
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, Paycheck) is the "Yuppie Mephistopheles." He is the chief spokesman for the tobacco industry. He works for a lobbying group funded by the tobacco companies called The Academy of Tobacco Studies. His job is to lie through his teeth about the danger and addictiveness of cigarettes. Nick's two best friends are also lobbyists—Polly Bailey for the alcohol industry (Maria Bello, A History of Violence) and Bobby Jay Bliss for the gun industry (David Koechner, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby). At their weekly lunches, they compare notes about the depth and breadth of their lies and how they can spin any information to their favor.
A crusading Vermont Senator (William H. Macy, Fargo) wants all cigarette packages to sport a gruesome new warning featuring a skull and crossbones. Of course, Nick's employers cannot allow this to happen. They have to keep smoking glamorous and cool. Consequently, they cook up a major offensive involving cigarette product placements in movies. At the same time, the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot, Hulk) has contracted lung cancer. Nick must also handle the Marlboro Man story so as to minimize the damage to big tobacco. On top of all this, Nick is trying to mend fences with his son, who has drifted away from him since Nick's divorce. Can Nick make the world safe for tobacco while still remaining a role model for his son?
There is a rather funny scene midway through Thank You For Smoking where three lobbyists compare the death tolls from their respective products. They call themselves the Merchants of Death and they represent the Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms industry. They know the statistics backwards and forwards. Also, they know that their industries are directly responsible for thousands of deaths. They are competing with each other to see who has the highest death figures. Their logic being that the one who has the most deaths under their belt does the hardest, and therefore best, job. I wish the entire film had the bite of that scene.
Don't get me wrong, this is a funny movie featuring some excellent writing. It just can't seem hold that satirical energy for any length of time. Far too much screen time is spent on the relationship between Nick and his son. There is an obvious attempt here being made to humanize him. Director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) would have done better to jettison most of those scenes in favor of more corporate and political machinations.
The large supporting cast all turn in good performances. J.K. Simmons as Nick's boss is giving somewhat of a retread of his performance from the Spider-man movies, but is still quite enjoyable as the loose cannon boss. Robert Duvall (Open Range) is all southern charm and gruff intimidation as The Captain, an ailing tobacco company CEO. Rob Lowe (Wayne's World) shows impeccable comic timing as a parody of the Hollywood super agent. Of particular note, however, is Katie Holmes (Batman Begins) playing enthusiastically against type as a conniving reporter. This is one of the better performances I have seen from her. She should try more of this and stay away from the good girl roles.
Nick would still be a likable anti-hero without the inevitable moral crisis, which ensues late in the movie. His attack of conscience, along with the storyline involving his son, feels manufactured in order to keep the character accessible. This was an unnecessary move. In spite of his questionable morality, Nick Naylor is an appealing guy. Much credit is due to Aaron Eckhart for making him such a likable cad. The labored efforts to make him more human in the third act take away from the film's impact.
Thank You For Smoking is based upon the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley. It's been ten years since I read the book, but I do recall the book being much more politically incorrect and a great deal darker. Had the filmmakers been a bit more faithful to the source, they would have really had something here.
The image quality is solid. Much of the film is shot with an oversaturated color palette making sharpness a bit hard to judge at times. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a routine affair. Dialogue and music come through well. But, this is not the type of material that will blow the doors off of your system.
The disc is loaded with special features. First off, we have two commentaries. Jason Reitman's solo commentary is an amiable affair. He doesn't allow too many silent gaps and he is obviously enthusiastic about the project. He is full of behind the scenes information and very complimentary of the actors and crew. There is also a group commentary featuring Reitman, Aaron Eckhart, and David Koechner. The three of them are recorded together. Like so many of these group commentaries, it is a mutual admiration session. The vibe of the commentary is quite collegial and the trio seems to have fun doing it.
Thirteen deleted scenes are provided with an optional director's commentary. The scenes are helpfully edited together with the preceding or subsequent scenes from the final cut so that the viewer can see them in context. Some funny stuff was left out. There are good scenes here that should have made the final cut.
A typical making-of featurette titled Unfiltered Comedy provides your typical interview and behind the scenes look at the film. A piece called America: Living in Spin features the cast and director bemoaning the current political and social climate. We also have an excerpt from The Charlie Rose Show featuring Reitman, Eckhart, producer David Sacks, and Christopher Buckley. The large collection of extras is rounded out with three galleries featuring poster art, production designs, and storyboards.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Thank You For Smoking has a lot more going for it than just a great title. But, I don't think that it's nearly as cheeky and edgy as the filmmakers seem to think is. After all, big tobacco, the gun lobby, self-righteous politicians, and unscrupulous reporters are not exactly sacred cows these days. These are big, easy targets that no one really minds seeing skewered. I think this film would have seemed more cutting edge back in the late '80s before big tobacco was as toothless as it is now. There's nothing like a legal settlement of a few hundred billion dollars to set an industry straight.
Thank You For Smoking is not quite mean spirited enough to be a black comedy. It's also not quite insightful enough to be biting satire. It seems the filmmakers held back just a little bit in order to produce a more mainstream product. The film is ill served by this restraint.
Thank You For Smoking a smart comedy girded by some great performances and flashes of razor sharp writing. The best parts of this movie make it worth your time. It could have been a much bolder piece of work though.
Not guilty. Anyone got a light?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Jason Reitman and the cast
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