Tuesday 22 September 2015

Movie Review: Thank You For Smoking (2005)

A workplace dramatic comedy, Thank You For Smoking examines the distasteful careers of those who lobby for industries that knowingly kill people. With biting satire, the story of a cigarette industry spokesperson cleverly humanizes the monsters behind the seemingly heartless statements.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the charismatic public face for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an industry-funded advocacy group pumping out dubious science and responding to attacks on big tobacco. Nick is really good at his job, and becomes a well-known and publicly reviled figure, to the point of receiving death threats. His regular lunch companions include Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), who hold similar jobs for the alcohol and firearms industries respectively.

Nick's nemeses includes Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), who is leading the charge for more graphic warnings on cigarette packages. With sales figures falling, Nick impresses his boss "BR" (J.K. Simmons) and tobacco tycoon "the Captain" (Robert Duvall) by suggesting that the industry pay for high profile movie stars to start smoking again in big-budget productions. This leads to a surreal meeting with Hollywood uber talent representative Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe).

Nick is divorced, but is nevertheless trying to be good dad to his inquisitive son Joey (Cameron Bright), who joins Nick on some of his business travels. On one trip they visit the actor Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), better known as the iconic Marlboro Man, but who is now dying of cancer. Meanwhile investigative journalist Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) wants to profile Nick, and they start a scorching sexual relationship over a series of interviews. Just when everything appears to be going swimmingly well for Nick, his career is suddenly disrupted on all fronts.

The first major feature written and directed by Jason Reitman, Thank You For Smoking takes a clever look at the distasteful edges of a free civil society. Through the character of Nick, the film explores the themes of freedom of choice, fatherhood in the face of notoriety, and a capitalistic, hypocritical society where politicians and industrialists wage battle. Everything and everyone has a price, cheese can be compared to cigarettes, the dream machine of Hollywood is a giant advertising space, and science is the first casualty amidst the sleaze, spin, and scandal.

Produced on a modest budget, Thank You For Smoking is sly, witty, and compact at 92 minutes. Reitman packs the film with quick vignettes from Nick's life, the film unfolding with a mischievous attitude to match Nick's unapologetic stance. Nick's task is not about proving that cigarettes don't kill; rather, it's about obfuscating his way through the next argument so that the relevant facts are buried in an avalanche of spin.

The film succeeds in turning Nick into not quite a hero, but rather a necessary presence, a product of a system that refuses to curtail freedom and allows every accused the right to buy the best defence. That a smart, handsome and charismatic man is attracted to the job is then simply a matter of matching talent to the professional requirement, no different than a slick lawyer standing up for a seemingly blatantly guilty defendant in court.

Reitman also offers up Nick as a victim. As the face of a reviled industry, Nick not only has to deal with maniacs out to harm him, but his son also suffers the misfortune of having a nationally despised father. Nick is not deterred, and insists on exposing young Joey to the world of lobbying and advocacy. Joey gets to see the behind the scenes world where a dying man gets to choose between a briefcase full of money and freedom of speech, and where movie agents control how many smoke rings will be puffed on screen, and for what price.

Aaron Eckhart picks up the film and runs with it, enjoying one of the most prominent roles of his screen career and maximizing the impish side of his persona to create a man who is likeable in spite of himself. All the supporting cast members get into the swing of events and deliver rollicking support, with Elliott, Simmons, Duvall, Holmes and Macy enjoying their moments despite relatively limited screen time.

Every operator, no matter how slick, has a weakness, and Nick is about to discover his vulnerability in the most publicly humiliating way. He magnetism breeds overconfidence, and he will face his greatest crisis just when his industry needs him the most. However, in a society built on selling without conscience, there will always be welcome space for the modern fast talking, quick thinking confidence man.

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