Thank You for Smoking: The Puffing Point

Hot air, not toxic smoke, is the real target of this coughing comedy.

A big laugh will undoubtedly erupt here in Seattle when the villain in Thank You for Smoking is revealed to be wearing Birkenstocks under his desk. And no small percentage of those laughing will undoubtedly also be wearing Birkenstocks. Some may also smoke, and probably all of them hate being told what to do, which alone should make this swift and breezy tobacco-war satire a welcome spring hit. Not an exceptionally smart or substantial one, but we'll take what we're offered at this time of the year. Jason Reitman (see interview at right) has grabbed Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel, given it a shaking, and come up with a father-son bonding picture that's best in its comic incidentals, not the parenting lessons. (Not that the latter last very long.) Yet Thank You is gratifyingly faithful to Buckley's concern for language—how we use it, twist it, weaponize it, deploy it for our strategic purposes. And Buckley couldn't have imagined a better mouthpiece for his words than Aaron Eckhart as his Beltway lobbyist hero, Nick Naylor, a Cheshire- grinning charmer who derives great delight from getting what he likes without ever having to lie. It's a total star turn for the handsome actor. A better compensated and more polished corporate cousin to Eckhart's heartless Yuppie character in In the Company of Men, Naylor is a master misleader. He operates on the K Street, white-linen-tablecloth level of untruth. As he patiently instructs his 12-ish-year-old son (Cameron Bright), "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong." And wrong is a place Naylor never wants to be—not in that restaurant, not at that table, not with that linen. He's got it good at the Academy of Tobacco Studies, as he sidesteps his gruff boss (J.K. Simmons) to curry favor with the Southern tobacco baron (Robert Duvall) who can make his life even better. Divorced, he's also caught the attentions of a cute young journalist (Katie Holmes). And he lunches regularly with his fellow lobbyists for the manufacturers of guns (David Koechner) and alcohol (Mario Bello)—dubbed "The M.O.D. Squad," as in Merchants of Death. In truth, I wished these lunches lasted a little longer, or that Reitman did more with Naylor's fellow Modsters, but he's not one to pause a movie anywhere for very long. Son of Ivan Reitman (Ghost Busters), he has an industrial approach to comedy: get in, get the laugh, get to the next scene. This conveyor belt works at first: the Birkenstock joke; the graphics and subtitles he throws on screen (when Naylor's boss sputters "environmentalist," we read "pussy"); the facile but rather funny trip Naylor takes to Hollywood to place his products in movie stars' mouths to "put the sex back into cigarettes." Yet like Naylor's own relentless PR push, Reitman's pushy pacing has the effect of making his movie, well, rather glib. (Sorry—just when I thought I could review a movie with Katie Holmes in it and avoid a Tom Cruise reference.) Naylor says, "I talk for a living," but he also demonstrates the rationale behind his manicured rhetoric—who he's serving, how he's positioning himself, what's his underlying agenda. (There's a nice scene when he pays off a former Marlboro Man dying of emphysema, played by Sam Elliott; in order to assuage his guilt, since Naylor Jr. is watching, he coaches the old cowpoke on how exactly to stage an outraged press conference to disgrace the cigarette industry.) In the book, Buckley's wordsmithery shows us how words can be used for purposes good or ill, since Naylor speaks them so fluently out both sides of his mouth. By contrast, when Reitman introduces a crisis of conscience, a rather silly kidnapping interlude, and the inevitable betrayal by Holmes' journalist (who, oddly, keeps her clothes on during sex), the sound of the grinding plot machinery drowns out Buckley's wonderful talk. And some things just don't make sense: Naylor's finally told by a doctor that he has to quit smoking, but we've never seen him smoke (nor does anyone else light up in the film), so how hard can that be? The satire is too filtered to deliver a nicotine punch. Meaning that in his first feature, Reitman isn't yet Billy Wilder, but maybe Billy Wilder wasn't yet Billy Wilder when directing his first movie either. He's got a better idea of satire than how to execute it—you need to feel the sting outside the theater. Still, his heart is blackened in the right place: We need more Naylor-esque rascals at the cinema these days, more misbehavior from high-functioning adults, not low-esteem teens. Reitman's correct to ridicule the nanny-state scolding of the left (embodied by William H. Macy's Vermont senator), even if the idea that the left has any real power is more than a little ridiculous and out of date. If Reitman is right that a post-SNL generation weaned on South Park and Jon Stewart is far more political, and sick of official hypocrisy, than Xbox sales suggest, let him and his moviemaking peers go after consequential targets. Conceived in the Clinton '90s, Naylor's careful rhetorical parsing—sewing doubt about health studies, cancer causes, and the hardness of facts—has become a de facto technique of governance today. As Naylor would say, the science isn't settled on global warming. Or, teach the controversy about evolution. Or, Iraq doesn't meet the definition of a civil war. Maybe we didn't vote for the guy, but Naylorese is the language now spoken by those in power in Washington, D.C., Texas, "Käh-liför-njä," and Seattle, too—no matter what shoes they're wearing.

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