Could any film possibly live up to the kind of hype that's surrounded Thank You For Smoking since its controversial sale last fall at Toronto? By squabbling over who legitimately owned the thing, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics raised the cultural value of Jason Reitman's debut immeasurably. It's not hard to see why the indie arms were chomping at the bit: Smoking is a slick, stagey crowd pleaser with just enough of an insurrectionary spirit to potentially do well on college campuses. I know I laughed out loud an awful lot while it was screening, but I'm a bit troubled by the fact that, less than 24 hours later, I'm having a hard time remembering how it ends. I fear that it's something like smoking itself – when you're doing it, it feels great; but later on, when you've forgotten the sensation of it, it sort of makes you cringe.
The film follows Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart, who oozes a volume of used-car salesman greasiness that I hadn't previously known he had in him), the top tobacco lobbyist in Washington and the not-so-secret weapon of a tobacco baron called The Captain (Robert Duvall). The Captain admires Nick's general amorality and eagerness to get the job done – especially when the job involves suckering the less intelligent into staying "alive and smoking" – and sends him to Los Angeles on a series of missions for the good of the brand. Nick drags along his twelve year old son Joey (Cameron Bright), a budding bullshit artist who Daddy couldn't be prouder of. All is going according to plan – the original Marlboro Man has been paid off, Hollywood executives are agreeing to up the smoking in the next Catherine Zeta-Jones flick – until Nick appears on the Dennis Miller Show, and a psycho calls in a kidnapping threat. Pretty soon Nick's semi-lifeless body is found in an extremely compromising position involving a national landmark. There are also subplots involving a sexpot investigative reporter (played with typical blandness by Katie Holmes), Nick's weekly meal with his fellow lobbyist cronies (Maria Bello makes the most out of a tiny role as a professional alcoholic), and Nick's arch enemy Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy, whose title card earned the loudest cheers at Saturday night's premiere), a Vermont Senator hellbent on labeling every pack of cigarettes sold with a giant skull and crossbones.
Not having read the novel on which he based the script, one wonders if Reitman shot material, particularly surrounding the Hollywood stuff, that didn't make it into the film. As it stands, Thank You For Smoking has a vague emotional arc, but narratively it plays out like a constellation of sitcom sketches, connected by the most tenuous threads of character evolution (the first two acts are dangerously dependent on narration; luckily Eckhart has the chops to pull it off). Adam Brody and Rob Lowe's roles as far-gone Hollywooders amount to little more than cameos, and the film bounces from one tertiary subplot to the next with such rapidity that, upon closer inspection, very little of it seems to have any "there" there. Scriptwise, it would seem like there's a lot of story fat that could be cut in favor of giving the more essential characters a few more meaty layers. On that note, Thank You For Smoking reminds me of I Heart Huckabees For Dummies, with Eckhart as a somewhat more macho, if less detestable, version of Jude Law's character from that film. Both films are meandering ensemble comedies concerned with what immersion in the culture of spin does to the soul; to my mind, Huckabees is the more provocative and better film, because it ultimately gives weight to human relationships in a way that Smoking isn't concerned with, and wouldn't be even if it had time or space.
But Smoking's very glibness is interesting for other reasons. In some ways, it's a very old-fashioned film, with echoes of everything from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the "comedies of remarriage" referenced by Stanley Cavell – it's a crowd pleaser, pure and simple. As satire, its teeth are pretty dull because its depth of field is so shallow. At the same time, one wonders how cutting it even means to be – though I can't remember how it comes about, I am sure that the film's ending was more than vaguely happy. If all Reitman wants to do is make a piece of great-looking entertainment, then he's more than succeeded. And from the son of the guy who made Ghostbusters, isn't that enough?
Others on Thank You For Smoking: The Hollywood Reporter calls the movie "amusing and clever but only skin deep," while David D'Arcy, writing at GreenCine Daily, feels "There's lots of wry truth to it." Variety's David Rooney, meanwhile, feels Reitman ultimately avoids assorted possible pitfalls with "sufficient analytical foundation to give ballast to the comedy's wry irreverence."