Few people on this planet know what it is to be truly despised. Can you blame them? I earn a living fronting an organization that kills 1200 people a day. Twelve hundred people. We’re talking two jumbo jet plane loads of men, women, and children. I mean, there’s Attila, Genghis..and me, Nick Naylor. The face of cigarettes, the Colonel Sanders of nicotine. -Nick Naylor, Academy of Tobacco Studies.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 1 in 5 Americans smokes cigarettes now, an all-time low since 1944. Smoking has been horribly out of favor for some time as cigarette smokers are pariahs and these once proud smokers that were so ubiquitous in restaurants, bars, and the office place can now be seen huddled in the rain, in little pockets of shame, outside of hospitals or other places where they once ruled. Everyone has an opinion on cigarette smoking, from the hardened, I’ll never quit! denier to the always annoying ex-smoker, but this movie may be able to do the impossible by providing common ground for all.
So, how could, in this enlightened era, a movie such as this be made? How can anyone possibly make a movie that can put the Tobacco Industry in a positive light? Aaron Eckhart, that’s how. Eckhart, who magnificently played one of the most Ruthless characters ever in In The Company of Men so effortlessly spins the concept that cigarettes may not be the cancer sticks that we all know they are, that the viewer roots for him the entire 90 minutes. The mood is set in the opening scene where you expect the tobacco lobbyist to be savaged on a TV show, one that even features a dying and bald 15-year-old smoker. The other guests are straining at the leashes, poised to attack and the audience is boiling with anger, even spitting, but Nick Naylor disarms them immediately. “It is in our best interest to keep him alive and smoking”, he confidently states, “These other people want him to die”. He has stolen the moment, totally gutted his opponents, and is soon doing fist-bumps with the dying kid.
Thank You For Smoking is a dark comedy, a satire, where Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) works as the Vice-President for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. What he is really is a super slick and effective lobbyist for the Tobacco companies, and he is quite good at what he does. Eckhart is perfect as Naylor, but there is also plenty of support with a cast of Wm. H. Macy, playing a twerp of a Vermont Senator who is violently anti-tobacco, J.K. Simmons as his fatalistic boss, and even Robert Duvall sipping a mint julep in a cameo as the old and dying Captain of the Tobacco Industry. This movie is just filled to the brim with snappy performances, one-liners, and great dialogue. The pacing is just spot on and there is not one scene wasted in this fantastic and underrated movie.
Some of the most inspired scenes are the ones where Naylor meets with his two friends and fellow lobbyist partners in crime. They are called the Merchants of Death, or the M.O.D. Squad for short and they share both their lamentations for the obstacles to promoting their Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, respectively, as well as hilarious ripostes and stats as to which industry kills the most Americans. The other two members are Polly Bailey(Maria Bello) the alcohol lobbyist, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), the lobbyist for the firearms industry. These exchanges are some of the funniest parts of the movie and when asked what motivated him to do what he did Nick replied, “Population Control”.
Nick is divorced, of course, but spends a lot of time traveling with his precocious son, who lives with his mother and her boyfriend. This hapless boyfriend tries to match wits with Nick, but is hopelessly overmatched as shown by this exchange:
Brad: Nick, your job and everything aside, I hope you understand that secondhand smoke’s a real killer.
Nick: What are you talking about?
Brad: I just hope you’re providing a smoke-free environment for Joey is all I’m saying.
Nick: Brad, I’m his *father*, You’re the guy fucking his mom.
Quality time is spent together and sappiness and predictability you will not see here, there is no redemption or reformation for Nick and to his credit, the kid both gets it and embraces it. This relationship between Nick and his son Joey, played by Cameron Bright, was one of the bright points of the film.
There is another scene in the film where Nick and his son are traveling to the ranch house of a former Marlboro Man, played brilliantly by Sam Elliot. Lorn Lutch is dying from lung cancer and has been outspoken about the tobacco industry. Nick did not want to take his son, but his son insisted, “I want to see what you do”. The scene at the house was a near masterpiece as was Nicks Sales Pitch to the Marlboro Man. I really need to redo my Top Ten Movies about Salesmen to include this guy, he would have Bill Porter handing over his Watkins Sales case in about 2 minutes and checking into a nursing home. I have fantasies about having Aaron Eckhart and Jon Hamm from Mad Men on the screen at the same time in Mad Men. I don’t think it would be possible, the awesomeness would explode the screen, especially if they were smoking. After the incredible scene with The Marlboro Man, Father and Son talk about what had transpired and speculate on what they would have done in a similar situation. The father is forthright and brutally honest about what he would do and there is not the expected response from Joey. Nick’s message throughout this movie is to make your own decisions and that is the same message that he gives Joey here. This kid is sharp. This kid understands. This kid is just a chip off of the old block.
The same road trip includes Nick trying to broker a deal with a big time Hollywood agent to try to get superstars to smoke on the screen again. The scenes at the agency, especially the ones with Adam Brody as the thin, nervous, but incredibly enthusiastic sycophant will put a smile on your face. Then there is Rob Lowe as the agent, you just have to see his performance to believe it. Want a $7,000 goldfish? You’ll find it here. Want cigarettes in space? Jeff Megall is your guy. We end up at a food court and the interchange between the father and son is one of the high points of the movie. The father is teaching the son how to sell and Joey is receptive to every bit of it, there is no corny and righteous bullshit here.
There are some unexpected turns and twists, but this movie never loses steam throughout the very watchable 90 minutes. In the end, everyone gets it in the chops, the government, the media and the tobacco industry as well. Jason Reitman did just an outstanding job on adapting Christopher Buckley’s best selling novel to film and it’s hard to imagine a better result considering such an explosively emotional topic. Aaron Eckhart was born for this role, no one else could have pulled it off and the supporting cast put this one over the top. It is infinitely watchable and highly recommended.
Quotes and one-liners:
- We don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they’re cool, available and *addictive*. The job is almost done for us. -BR
- My job requires a certain…moral flexibility -Nick
- Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent. -Nick
- These days when someone smokes in a movie they’re either a psychopath..or a European. -Nick
- You look like a nice enough fella. What are you doing working for these assholes?-Lorne Lutch (Marlboro Man)
- I didn’t even smoke Marlboros. I smoked Kools. -Lorne Lutch (Marlboro Man)
- That’s the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly you’re never wrong. -Nick
Special Ruthless Ratings
- Film- 9/10 Eckhart was magnificent
- DVD/Extras-8/10 There are two commentary tracks, one with Jason Reitman and one with Reitman, Eckhart, and Koechner, watch the latter, it was outstanding
- Rewatchability- 9/10 You can get this from amazon for as little as a penny.
- Weak links- Katie Holmes as Heather Holloway. For a part that was supposed to be Ruthless, she wasn’t.
- So, the air is thick with smoke all during the film? Nope, there is not one stick fired up. This film is a marvelous work of art.