Thank You for Smoking (**½)

Posted on April 1st, 2006 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

This is one of those rare instances where I read the book before seeing the movie, and the cliche holds true, the book was better. Much better. That’s not to say that the film was bad, but the pecking order is great book followed by slightly above average film. One of the best parts of the film is the performance of Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor. Nick is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, and he hasn’t so much as sold his soul as he has failed to control his awesome power for convincing. He’s managed to convince himself that Big Tobacco is being unfairly treated and mis-characterized by the government and the press, and with his pure belief he is able to charm and sway just about anybody to open their minds, even if just a smidge, to consider the fact that Big Tobacco just may not be the incarnation of the Devil.

Now, if you’ve read much of this site you’ll know that I’m not pro-smoking (he understated), but intellectually I’ve also felt that the government is acting quite hypocritically with regards to tobacco. Since tobacco is legal, the constitutionalist in me says that it should be treated as such and not harassed and over-taxed. If we as a people say that tobacco is legal, let it be legal. Now, that’s not to say that I believe it should be ubiquitous, and in fact I would happily agree to having tobacco legal to smoke, but have it be illegal to inflict others with one’s effluvia. In other words, I won’t tell you you can’t smoke if you don’t tell me I have to inhale your blow-by gasses.

Parking high horse.

One of the things I like best about the film is that it doesn’t demonize Nick Naylor, and instead shows him to be a superstar, while also beginning to question if he’s playing for the right team. He has a young son, and the film plays up the fact that Nick is ambivalent about how to reconcile his desire to be a good dad with his desire to do a good job. This aspect of the film is what I think weakens the impact, as it attempts to humanize Nick without making him pick sides.

For example, there’s a scene where Nick’s bosses send him to visit an old, cancer-stricken former Marlboro man and take him a briefcase full of cash, no strings attached. No confidentiality agreement, nothing. Just, here, here’s some money from us to you. An implied guilt trip. And Nick not only delivers the money and the message, but he spins the interaction in such a way as to leave Mr. Dying Marlboro Man (played wonderfully by Sam Elliott, who in retrospect seems born to play a dying former Marlboro Man) with only one option – take the money (for his family after he’s gone) and keep his mouth shut (so that he won’t be a hypocrite by taking their money and then saying derogatory things about tobacco).

The kicker is that Nick has taken his son along with him on this visit. You see, his son accompanied him on this business trip to California so that he and his father could bond, and the son innocently backs his father into a corner about going along to make the payoff, because Nick admitting that he didn’t want his son along would be Nick admitting that what we was doing was “wrong”. And Nick doesn’t see himself as a wrongdoer. So Nick’s son gets to see what his dad does for a living. And, like all sons, absorbs it and learns from it.

There are other facets to the film, as well. Nick belongs to the M.O.D Squad, which stands for Merchants of Death. This group of three represent Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms, and meet once a week for lunch and spend time comparing yearly mortality rates for each of their respective masters and using that to gauge the toughness of their jobs.

There’s also a vacuous reporter, played by Katie Holmes, who does a little convincing of her own (if you know what I mean and I think you do) and gets Nick to open up to her about his job, and then writes a scorching expose of him and his cohorts. It was only afterwards that Mynagirl told me that the reporter was Katie Holmes, and I have to say she did a singularly unimpressive job, and sort of faded into the background, in my opinion. And got a little bit freaky before doing so, I might add.

The rest of the cast does a good job, with Robert Duvall as the personfication of Big Tobacco, William H. Macy as the prototypical anti-smoking (and Birkenstock wearing) liberal Congressperson, and Rob Lowe (whose porn name should be Raw Blow, if you ask me) as the stereotypically sociopathic and pseudo-spiritual Hollywood movie exec.

Put it all together and you have a fairly good film that could have been great with just a bit of tweaking and enough backbone to stay away from the Hollywood-esque ending. Still it was much more entertaining and different than the usual Hollywood drivel, and that makes it worth seeing.

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