There haven’t been too many films made about Big Tobacco apart from Michael Mann’s superb The Insider in 1999, which focused more on the ideological struggles of two men rather than the industry as a complex entity. With Syriana having tackled Big Oil as a sprawling influence and the upcoming Fast Food Nation lambasting that expansive industry with sincerity, it’s surprising that the first film to look at Big Tobacco on a broader canvass is a comedy: Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a lobbyist for a major tobacco company, spinning the company and smoking in general as being a maligned practice via every possible media and political outlet. He initially seems amoral and unconcerned with the genuine ramifications of smoking, instead relishing the thrill of arguing on behalf of a hated institution. But his relationship with his 12-year-old son complicates matters: he wants to remain a role model, even when Joey wants to accompany him on trips to a similarly morally flexible Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe) and the inspiration for the Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), now disgruntled at Big Tobacco’s manipulation of him. Plus, Nick must contend with a vehement anti-smoking senator (William H. Macy) and a journalist (Katie Holmes) looking to profile him despite her ever-so-slightly suspicious seduction of him during an interview.
Thank You for Smoking needs to be commended for having the balls to make a comedy about a pretty dark subject – Nick and others throw the statistics of tobacco usage and related deaths around frequently, but there are few moments of genuine pathos in the film. The comedy is either very subtle or very black, and the actors carry it off tremendously. After some fairly dull roles, Aaron Eckhart scores as Nick Naylor, revealing his flexibility and even slapstick potential, all while anchoring the film with ease. The supporting cast, including Maria Bello, Robert Duvall, and J.K. Simmons are as good as you’d expect (although Duvall is sadly wasted, especially since he’s barely on screen these days). Reitman did well to attract such a major cast for his first feature, and for delivering a more topical, funny, and entertaining film than his father Ivan (Ghostbusters, Twins) has in years.
Where the film falls short is in failing to assert a unique style, choosing a flashy range of on-screen captions, freeze-frames and others that have been used many times before by Guy Ritchie and others, but here aren’t deployed in an innovative way. A more sedate style allowing the distinctive script and performances to carry the weight may have worked better, because Reitman is aping rather than creating.
But the film is still notable for that courage, not just for addressing this subject matter but also for avoiding an indictment of Big Tobacco. While such an inquisition would theoretically be welcome in cinema, its corruption and manipulation is well enough known to its opponents that a film would have difficulty offering anything new. Instead the film takes the interesting stand of defending everyone’s right to choose, even if the decision is detrimental to one’s health. After all, the facts are out there in abundance, but cigarettes aren’t going anywhere. There are plenty of smokers who assert and defend their right to choose, and Thank You for Smoking celebrates that, but without any kind of support for Big Tobacco. It’s an intriguing position, and what makes this comedy so thought-provoking.