Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking is a wickedly funny political satire that takes a long, smirking, sideways glance at the hypocrisy of spin, both corporate and political. The film, Reitman's feature film debut, was highly anticipated - Reitman, of course, is the son of director Ivan Reitman, and there's nothing like having a famous-director father to plop an ambitious young director squarely in the fishbowl, with everyone waiting for him to either live up to their lofty expectations, or fall flat on his face. No pressure, kid.
The script is based on a book by another famous "kid of", Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Buckley. It's hard to know whether to give more credit to Buckley for the excellent source material or Reitman for the adaptation; taking a 272 page book and condensing it succinctly into a 92 minute film, while retaining both the heart at the center and the sharpness at the edges, is no easy task, but Thank You for Smoking is slick (in a good way) and well-packaged from beginning to end. It rather reminded me of another adaptation about the cigarette biz, 1993's Barbarians at the Gate, which starred James Garner in one of the best performances of his career as H. Ross Johnson.
Reitman honed his directorial skills with a pocket full of lauded comedic shorts, and that experience shows in the slickness of Smoking's spot-on pace and comedic timing. The film is also boosted by a fine cast, impeccably suited to their parts, starting with Aaron Eckhart as handsome, white-toothed Nick Naylor, the world's best tobacco lobby spin doctor, also known as the "yuppie Mephistopheles". In the film's opening scene, Nick, who works for the fictitious Academy of Tobacco Studies, financed by the big cigarette corporations, manages to turn a seemingly impossible appearance on the Joan Lunden Show - where he's lined up against Moms Against Smoking, Ron Goode (Todd Luiso), spokesman for vocal anti-tobacco crusader, Senator Ortalon Finistirre (William H. Macy, who just can't seem to turn in a bad performance even if he wanted to), and "Cancer Boy" -- into a win situation for big tobacco by announcing (off the top of his head) a new $50 million campaign to keep kids from smoking. He even gets in a fraternal handshake with Cancer Boy before archenemy Goode can slip in there and claim Cancer Boy for his team.
Back at the Capitol, Goode is taken to task by the dark-socks-and-sport-sandals-clad Senator Finistirre for allowing Naylor to get the best of him on national TV. Goode is in awe of Naylor, seeing him as a God of Spin, an unbeatable foe - an attitude that does little to endear him to his boss, who becomes even more determined to ruin Naylor at all costs. In his zeal to see a graphically hideous skull-and-crossbones plastered on every cigarette package, and his determination to utterly destroy his nemesis, Finistirre becomes what all men must become when their defense of an otherwise worthy cause blinds them to basic compassion and humanity: a zealot as amoral as the cause he is fighting against.
Naylor's boss, B.R. (J.K. Simmons), is none to happy about Naylor's $50 million promise, but The Captain (Robert Duvall), the mysterious billionaire at the head of the tobacco conglomerate, admires Naylor's killer instincts and tenacity - and willingness to bend morality. He decides to send Naylor to Hollywood to bribe producers to get smoking back into movies - Naylor's idea, for which B.R. tries to get credit, but no matter how hard B.R. tries, he just can't seem to get the best of Naylor.
Some of the funniest scenes in both the book and film center around Naylor's lunch dates with the "MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad", composed of Naylor, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, who just keeps getting better in every role I see her in), representing Alcohol, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), representing Guns. Reitman smartly pulled the dialogue for these scenes pretty much verabtim from the book, and every one of them had the audience in stitches. What makes the MOD Squad so great is how refreshingly un-PC they are - you never know what they're going to say. When the trio casually bandies about death statistics from their respective vices, your inner self, aware of our societal mores, gasps, even as you're laughing out loud. When Naylor tells his fellow MOD Squadders he's being interviewed by reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), they warn him to be careful. Naylor, ever supremely confident that he is unbeatable, shrugs off their warning and proceeds to fall directly into bed with the flirtatious Hollaway the minute she bats her big, brown eyes his way.
The beating heart that keeps Thank You for Smoking from being all satire, all the time, is the relationship between Nick and his young son, Joey, with whom he is trying to remain bonded in the wake of a failed marriage to Joey's mom. Joey is barely a side character in the book; Reitman wisely decided to add a dose of humanity and likeability to Naylor's otherwise somewhat unscruplous character by making the gravitational center of the film Nick's connection with his son. Reitman doesn't give us a lot of back story on the strained relationship between Nick and his ex-wife, Jill (Kim Dickens), but he doesn't really need to; he assumes the audience will grok that people who used to be married and aren't any longer will have some degree of lingering animosity between them, so he doesn't bog the flow of the film down with weighty side stories. Nick may not care about the dangers of tobacco, but he does care what his son thinks of him, and he longs to build a closer relationship with him, and he doesn't take kindly to having his paternal turf treaded on. When Joey's mother's new boyfriend, a doctor, condescendingly attempts to lecture Naylor about the dangers of secondhand smoke, Naylor testily fires off, "I'm Joey's father. You're just the guy fucking his mom."
When Nick gets sent to Hollywood, he wants to take Joey with him for some father-son bonding time; Jill doesn't want Joey to go, but Joey, who has been watching and learning from his dad, unleashes some Naylor-style persuasiveness her way and she grudgingly relents. Thus Joey gets to see up close exactly what his dad does for a living, and Nick, perhaps for the first time, is forced to question what he does. Thankfully, Reitman steers well clear of the cheesy Liar Liar route, in which the morally ambiguous father is redeemed of his sins and becomes a glistening white knight for his son to admire and emulate by changing his dastardly ways. Instead, Nick follows a more pragmatic path, in which the drive to pay the mortgage and gain self-identity by being great at what you do for a living sometimes come into conflict with virtue, and you have to either find a way to justify your moral missteps or bail from your career path and parachute into a more conscionable way to maintain your standard of living. It's an issue faced by a lot of Nick Naylors out there, every day; can a job ever just be a "job", completely severed from who you are as a person? Or does what we do for a living intrinsically reflect our inner character, for better or worse?
Thank You for Smoking plays kind of like a clever heist film, but without the heist; you can't help but root for Naylor, who should, after all, be the bad guy in the story, right? But in the world of Thank You for Smoking, it's hard to tell who's good and who's bad. Reitman plays fast and loose with traditional views on good guys and bad guys; Naylor, the slick tobacco company lobbyist, shows up to deliver a bribe to the ailing Lorne Lutch, aka The Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot) in a shining white car, wearing a gleaming white shirt, with a smile so white (in spite of years of smoking) it just has to be manufactured. The morally outraged Lutch, who aims his shotgun at Naylor until Joey jumps out of the car, must decide whether or not to accept the cash in exchange for his silence. Senator Finistirre, who should be the good guy - he's out to stop those evil tobacco companies from killing kids, after all - has his own brand of flexible morality in his burning hatred and desire to decimate Nick Naylor at all costs. Reitman reiterates this theme of flexible morality throughout the film. Reitman turns his lens to both sides of these issues, though, never painting one side or the other as strictly good or bad - instead, the film questions all the shades of grey that lie in the overlapping edges of moral quandries.
With the dream cast Reitman was blessed with for this film - Eckhart, Bello, Macy, and Duvall - could you ask for a better cast? - some might argue that Reitman didn't have to do a lot of directing, at least of his actors. Small but brilliant jewels of performances by Rob Lowe, Adam Brody and Dennis Miller also help to keep things snappy and sparkling. But directing a film is having a vision of a story and bringing it to life, and pulling together infinite elements into a harmonious whole. Every element of Thank You for Smoking has the careful touch of a professional who knows what he's doing, from the carefully planned color palettes (green for tree-hugger Finistirre's Capitol Hill office, smoky dark browns for the private tobacco club where Nick and The Captain meet) to the details like the collection of maple syrup bottles on Finistirre's desk and the sandals on his feet. Reitman also knows when to back off and let others' ideas shine through. One of the funniest moments in the film is during Finistirre's McCarthy-esque Senate hearing on tobacco warning labels, when Finistirre, glowering at Naylor, stands up and bellows, "The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!" - a line ad-libbed by Macy in place of a not-as-funny line in the script.
Thank You for Smoking is a fast-paced, very funny film that tackles morality without moralizing - a solid feature directorial debut for Reitman, who must be breathing a huge sigh of relief to have such a successful freshman effort under his belt. Combined with the six-pack of shorts that preceded it, things look very bright for Reitman's future, and for the likelihood that his next film will be every bit as entertaining.
Note: Karina Longworth reviewed Thank You for Smoking during Sundance. You can read her take on the film here.