They say talk is cheap, but the smart, funny satire “Thank You for Smoking” illustrates that talk can also be very profitable—if you’re good enough at it and open to the highest bidder. When consummate spin-doctor Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) talks on behalf of Big Tobacco, people light up.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard a theater full of grown-ups laugh so hard and often. Part of what makes “Thank You for Smoking” so perversely fascinating is that you get the sneaking suspicion that you’re laughing at things you really shouldn’t, or realize that you’re laughing at a reflection of yourself. This comedy of twisted logic targets our confused culture of spin and sound bites, taking aim at our penchant for telling half-truths and persuasive lies in the service of profit and power.
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, “Thank You for Smoking” introduces us to the world of corporate lobbyists. Naylor is a silver-tongued devil who can go into his son’s classroom on “career day” and convince them that the point is not whether smoking is harmful, but whether the right to smoke is an issue of almost patriotic importance.
Naylor’s friends are a pair of lobbyists (Maria Bello and David Koechner) who represent alcohol and firearms. The three call themselves the “MOD Squad,” short for “Merchants of Death,” and almost as a point of pride, brag about how many deaths the products they so expertly promote and defend are responsible for every year.
Frustrated by a decline in cigarette sales, Naylor’s boss bellows: “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool, available and addictive. The job is almost done for us!”
To boost sales and market the “coolness” of smoking, Naylor is sent to Hollywood to meet with a powerful talent agent (Rob Lowe) and work out a scheme to promote the glamour of smoking in the movies.
The skewed world of the lobbyist collides with the nearly surreal world of Hollywood deal making and the results are as are as hilarious as they are depressingly cynical.
Along the way, Naylor meets the original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot); fends off media attacks by a self-righteous senator (William H. Macy); and cavorts—both in and out of bed—with a backstabbing reporter (Katie Holmes) whose betrayal and exposé of Nick puts his career and personal life on the skids.
Naylor attempts to justify his work saying, “Ninety percent of what people do, they do just to pay the mortgage.” Yet he also wrestles with feelings of regret. People have been hurt, and most troubling, his son’s moral compass has been thrown off kilter. But there is no redemption for Nick—only the resignation that fast talk and telling a convincing lie are his true gifts, and that if he didn’t cash in, someone else would.
“Thank You for Smoking” confronts some of the most basic issues of morality. Naylor himself admits early in the film that he has a “certain moral flexibility” that makes him perfect for this kind of work. He lives by the credos that “you’re never wrong as long as you argue your point right,” and that “you don’t have to prove that you’re right, just that the other guy is wrong.” Lying for profit, the proverbial “bearing false witness,” tops the list of moral issues. Greed, self-interest at the expense of others, and the hypocrisy of the self-righteous are not far behind.
The film skewers all sides equally—simultaneously lampooning big tobacco and its opponents as well as taking well aimed swipes at Hollywood, Congress, political correctness and the media for good measure. Ironically, it actually makes its best case not for truth, but for freedom of choice by illustrating that in a world of spin, while truth is never relative, it may be very difficult to find amidst the competing arguments and misinformation. Freedom to choose what to believe and what to do might be the only defensible position.
Reminiscent of “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “Thank You for Smoking” may revel in characters who abandon moral responsibility, but its underlying effect is to lay their amorality bare. Even as we laugh at it, we shake our heads at the audacity and shiftlessness of the characters.
But though we may shake our heads in disapproval, it’s never in disbelief because we all know someone a little like Nick Naylor—someone who treats the truth like clay, to be molded to his or her needs, and offered to the highest bidder.
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church
MPAA Rating: R for language and adult situations.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman. Novel by Christopher Buckley
Cast: Nick Taylor: Aaron Eckhart; Polly Bailey: Maria Bello; Joey Naylor: Cameron Bright; Jack: Adam Brody; Lorne Lutch: Sam Elliott; Heater Holloway: Katie Holmes; Bobby Jay Bliss: David Koechner; Jeff Megall: Rob Lowe; Senate Ortolan K. Finistirre: William H. Macy; Doak “The Captain” Boykin: Robert Duvall.