Jason Reitman was only 28 when his 2005 film Thank You For Smoking opened, and just 17 when the novel by Christopher Buckley upon which it is based was published. Thus it was probably written and developed while Reitman was in his mid-twenties. As such, it’s exactly like most young men’s films: it’s about a guy who is the smartest person in the room, who is constantly being recognized as such by the people around him, and who hardly ever doubts himself.
That’s all fine, since the movie is intended to be a satire. The problem I had with it is, at some point it stops being a satire. At some point the amoral hero of this movie began to seem a little too real to me, and at that moment I really began to dislike him and the film’s supposedly satirical message.
That hero is Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart at his most smug. Nick is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, and he has to negotiate all of the obstacles that involves: Congress, the press, and the tobacco executives that are paying the bills. His only friends are fellow lobbyists representing the alcohol and firearms industries, and his lifestyle is putting some pressure on his ex-wife (who married a doctor) and son.
Now, I’m going to say some really negative things about this movie later on, so let me get this out of the way now: it’s a very funny film. Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) has an expert grasp of tone and stages his scenes as well as any young director working. Much of the humor is similar to the humor in another Movie Klub film with Aaron Eckhart, In the Company of Men, about which I wrote, “you laugh because you can’t believe one person can get away with being such a giant asshole.” Here, you laugh at Nick Naylor’s assholishness, but also that of his boss (the inimitable J. K. Simmons), a bizarre Hollywood super agent that he has to deal with (Rob Lowe), and his friends (Maria Bello as the alcohol lobbyist, David Koechner from Anchorman as the gun guy).
Here’s the problem: it’s a good thing to be Nick Naylor, and the movie never takes any other position. Consider an older Movie Klub movie, one which I have wanted to review many times but failed because its satire is simply too good to describe, Network. The William Holden character is opposed by his wife, and the Faye Dunaway character is opposed by Holden after he realizes her basic emptiness. Nobody opposes Nick Naylor: he wins every argument, converts every opponent, makes all the money, and gets to have wild sex with a reporter played by Katie Holmes. She betrays him, sure, but it only leads him into even greater triumph.
Naylor has opposition, in the form of a Vermont senator played by William H. Macy, but he does not oppose Naylor; he’s just as craven and amoral as Naylor is and as such Nick runs rings around him without much effort. Even the biggest absolute in life is no obstacle for Nick, as an attempt on his life by an extremist group doesn’t change his thinking one iota. He earns the love of his son by teaching his son to view the world in the exact same way that he views it. Only a public professional humiliation causes any doubt in Nick at all, but his way out of that doubt is simply to be the same as he was, only more so.
The sum total of all this is, Thank You For Smoking is what I like to call a “ha-ha, they’re all terrible” movie. Everyone in the movie is amoral, and Nick is the hero merely because he’s the only character allowed to be honest with the audience about it. That’s where most of the humor comes from, as Eckhart’s voiceover narration acknowledges the awfulness of the people around him. The problem with that is, it’s exactly what the real Nick Naylors of the world want you to think.
A Movie Klubber suggested to me a couple of days after seeing the film that it is opposed to smoking and to the Washington lobbyist culture. That may well have been Reitman’s intention, but it’s absolutely not the result. Take it from someone who lived in Washington D.C. for almost all of the George W. Bush administration: lobbyists for Big Tobacco and the like want you to laugh at this movie, because laughter breeds acceptance of the status quo. No one laughs about any situation that they think they have the power to change. Thus, it’s good for average citizens to think everyone in the system is awful, because that distrust causes people to ignore the system, which allows the only people who are paying attention – the lobbyists themselves – to continue doing whatever they want.
The same tactics that Nick Naylor uses – changing the subject, equating support of his viewpoint with love of America, dominating the television conversation so that his opponents’ responses are cut off by a commercial break – were used to sell the Iraq war to the American people. Basically, regardless of your political persuasion, if there is any issue in American politics which makes you outraged, there’s a Nick Naylor who is working to sell the public on it. And he doesn’t find this movie to be critical of him: he wishes that he could be perceived the way that other characters perceive Nick Naylor in this movie.
As for this being an anti-smoking movie … how would anyone come away from this film with that opinion? Consider the characters in this film who oppose Nick Naylor: Macy’s spineless senator, an aging former Marlboro Man (Sam Shepard) whose cowboy honor is easily bought off, Holmes’ reporter who is willing to sleep her way to the story. Who among them ever espouses a viewpoint that one would want to agree with? There is only one master of this universe, Nick Naylor, and we know what he wants us to think.
Nick Naylor says repeatedly during the movie that smoking is a decision that informed adults should make once armed with all of the facts. Of course, his job is to obscure, deflect, and cause people to ignore all of the facts. In NaylorWorld, there would be no science, no facts, only arguments to be won by the guy with the quicker tongue – and this movie goes out of its way to demonstrate that it’s awesome to be that guy. This is a well-executed picture which is very funny, but if it was ever intended to prevent of the creation of NaylorWorld, it in fact does just the opposite.
Reviewed by Mark Young