FILM REVIEW: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
Besides being the best American comedy since "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Thank You For Smoking" is the first film in a long time with a true gift of gab. A lot of the time people actually talk fast in it. Its wisecracks actually crack wise.
Maybe I'm the only one on the planet who wonders why comedies don't move the way they used to, or why most contemporary directors can't move things along without making them cartoonishly broad. It has taken fledgling director/screenwriter Jason Reitman exactly one feature film to figure it out. The result is a tight, swift yet relaxed adaptation of the 1994 Christopher Buckley novel. It goes a little squishy in the Reitman-expanded scenes between tobacco industry lobbyist Nick Naylor and his preteen son. Yet even those scenes deliver their share of felicities. Early on young Joey (Cameron Bright) asks his father, Nick (Aaron Eckhart, coming fully alive on screen for the first time), what makes America the greatest country in the world. Quick as a blink comes Nick's reply: "Our endless appeals system."
Nick is the official silken-blather mouthpiece for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a cigarette-funded shrine to the power and the glory of the lobby industry. Big Tobacco is under siege. Teen smoking has taken a dive and the academy's not happy. A deadly earnest Vermont senator (William H. Macy, in Birkenstocks) wants the scariest possible warning labels affixed to each cigarette pack.
Played by Eckhart with wily charm and the righteousness of a missionary, the divorced Nick is dispatched from Washington, D.C., to Hollywood to persuade a studio mogul (Rob Lowe) to amp up cigarette-related product placement in movies. He brings his son on the trip. While out West, Nick and Joey pay a visit to a former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who is dying of cancer. Nick feels his first job-related conscience pang.
At this point, a big-budget, major-studio adaptation of "Thank You For Smoking" would have Nick begin to see the error of his ways. The character would redeem himself, and a satiric work would transform, by degrees, into a heartwarming one. Reitman's film doesn't work that way. It's not cold - it's designed and photographed in warm tones, in fact - and it may smooth an edge or two off Buckley's original. But the film has a visual snap to go with the verbal crackle, which was the one thing "40 Year-Old Virgin" lacked.
My favorite scenes are the least plot-dependent. Nick has a standing dinner date in a Naugahyde steak-and-martini emporium with his fellow "merchants of death," alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and firearms lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). It's their place to unwind, bitch about their troubles, brag about how many citizens their particular product kills off in a calendar year. They sound harsh, but the scenes play like low-keyed comic honey.
With one exception - as an ethically challenged newspaper reporter, Katie Holmes lacks a certain merry two-faced quality - Reitman's cast is a series of hand-in-glove ringers. In addition to the aforementioned, Robert Duvall enjoys a couple of ripe and mellow scenes as "The Captain," a mentholated icon of the Old South and better Big Tobacco days. It's Eckhart's show, though, along with Reitman's. The director, who is the son of Ivan "Ghostbusters" Reitman, has cited Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "Election") as having a low-budget, high-freedom career to envy. On the basis of "Thank You For Smoking," Reitman can have it if he wants it.
"Thank You for Smoking"
Directed by Jason Reitman; screenplay by Reitman, based on Christopher Buckley's novel; cinematography by James Whitaker; production design by Steve Saklad; music by Rolfe Kent; edited by Dana Glauberman; produced by David Sacks. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, March 24. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: R (language and some sexual content).
Nick Naylor - Aaron Eckhart
Polly Bailey - Maria Bello
Joey Naylor - Cameron Bright
Lorne Lutch - Sam Elliott
Heather Holloway - Katie Holmes
Bobby Jay Bliss - David Koechner
Jeff Megall - Rob Lowe
Sen. Finistirre - William H. Macy
The Captain - Robert Duvall