Thank You for Smoking, a sharp look at tobacco industry and lobbyists, is the kind of movie that works better in pieces than altogether. Singular scenes sometimes have more power than the film as a whole, and that’s the case here. It lacks much of an emotional scope, the overarching plot isn’t particularly interesting or involved, and most of the secondary characters only get a few scenes with which to make their mark — they’re take-it-or-leave-it characters with only one purpose in mind: Be broad caricatures that we can laugh at, simply because of how absurd they are.
The lead is given to Aaron Eckhart, playing the charismatic Nick Naylor. He’s a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, working to gain the public’s favor and against any potential legislation that could impact the sales of cigarettes. He’s the best in the world at what he does, and avoids bringing in any morals to his work. He does it to pay the mortgage, and that’s it. We basically get to watch him work and live his life for a few days over the course of the movie.
Along the way, he meets a fun and quirky cast of characters: his boss, BR (J.K. Simmons), the type of hard-nosed, profit-driven person you can expect from a big company; a Senator from Vermont (William H. Macy) who wants to put a picture of a skull and crossbones on cigarette packages; the two people in his position but for alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (David Koechner) instead of tobacco, who serve as his only friends; a reporter (Katie Holmes) who is willing to do anything to get a story; a former employee who is now dying of cancer (Sam Elliot); and Nick’s son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who gets taken along on many journeys throughout the film.
There are more, but this suffices. Basically, Nick and Joey go around from one to the other, letting us make fun of their stances and antics, all while Nick sways each conversation the way he wants to. As long as you understand the context of each scene, they will all work well as standalone moments of poignancy. If nothing else, at least Thank You for Smoking makes its point very easily and clearly.
In fact, you won’t even catch any of the characters in the film lighting it up. One tries, and there are some scenes on a television from older movies in which characters smoke, but not a single one of the cast members in this movie does. I don’t know whether or not that emphasizes the anti-smoking message, but it’s a fun little fact, and if that was the intent, it at least got me thinking about it. However, it’s clear enough that even if characters were puffing away throughout that the movie doesn’t believe that they’re in the right.
Yes, it’s funny, and yes, it makes its point. It doesn’t work well as a narrative-driven project, or as one where characters are the focus. It tries at this near the end, and completely falls flat. In fact, there were only two possible outcomes at the end, and the one that was chosen didn’t help serve the film’s message. It weakens the message, and isn’t as funny as the other choice. I get that we need a Hollywood ending here, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers didn’t chicken out at the finale.
Aaron Eckhart is a very good choice to play the charismatic lobbyist. You watch him and you can believe in what he says, regardless of how ridiculous it is. While the entirety of the film is silly, he doesn’t go over the top, and he knows exactly what balance to strike in his performance. Considering he’s put against caricatures of all makes and models, this is important, even though this isn’t a character piece.
Despite the film being most critical of the tobacco industry, it’s more unbiased than you’d initially give it credit for. It does present more than just one side of the argument, and does at least not completely condemn the free choice that adults are given. Don’t get me wrong: There isn’t a scene where it says “go out and smoke right now” or anything like that — even if some of the characters are saying it — but it doesn’t just present its viewpoint without at least exploring the opposition side.
It would have been nice for the narrative side of the film to not be more or less ignored in favor of skits with vague connections to each other, but that’s a small complaint. This is a movie with a point, and a plot might — might, I say; I’m not certain that it would, but perhaps that’s what director Jason Reitman thought — get in the way of that. Connecting everything might force an audience to think too much about the film and not the point about which the film is talking. So, I suppose I can at least see why this decision was made, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.
Thank You for Smoking is a compact and fun little satire that easily gets its point across while also being more unbiased than movies of this nature often are. Aaron Eckhart is a great lead, and could possibly sell anything to anyone. Other characters come and go as they please, and the film feels like more of a collection of skits than anything else. It’s still good fun, and it’ll definitely make its mark on you after it’s finished.