Dir. Jason Reitman. Starring Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Cameron Bright
In 2005, when this movie first came out, I’m not sure that the slide with the names of four executive producers, men without any real creative input on the film, would have raised many eyebrows. In 2017, watching a movie that has the names of some major PayPal folks on it is weird. (It’s especially weird to see Peter Thiel’s name on Thank You for Smoking, and after the manifest events of last year which he’s scrawled his name upon, just seeing his name gives me nausea.) There may not be a movie with a more distracting set of opening credits than this one, but they are, in their own way, predictive. In a simpler time, some people got hot and bothered over the possibility that Thank You for Smoking was a pro-smoking text. I’m not sure why they’d bother – it’s almost as difficult to be pro-smoking in a mainstream text as it is to be pro-bullying – but while they were doing that, the weird macho libertarian message of the film goes more or less unchallenged.
Nick Naylor (Eckhart) goes to the congressional hearing at the end of the film, and after giving a very conveniently arrayed line of senators some guff for the potentially deadly things produced in their states (Washington, Michigan, and Vermont are called out for airline disasters, car crashes, and heart disease – it’s a good thing no one from North Carolina was on that subcommittee), Nick’s message ultimately comes down to the gospel of personal responsibility. No one, he says, can reasonably say that cigarettes don’t come with a certain amount of danger, and no one can reasonably say that they don’t know that already. But people should have some kind of choice, Nick says; it’s not up to someone else to impose on the individual’s right to do what he wants. Personal responsibility is a comically named perspective, seeing as it purposefully abdicates a person’s responsibility to anyone else. To Nick, who is at his most charmingly reasonable in this late scene, we are all disconnected just enough that our choices don’t really affect one another; he just happens to be speaking on behalf, in this moment, of tobacco, which is synonymous with “secondhand smoke.” Libertarianism, especially that version which pretends to be an economic doctrine, is not often the chosen point of view of grown-ups, and a movie which espouses “personal responsibility” this blandly loses a great deal of its ability to be fun. That’s too bad, because this is still a really fun movie when it’s not trying to teach us anything.
It’s too bad that Aaron Eckhart never really caught on as a leading actor; he has a face and an aspect better for smart ’50s Westerns than for indie comedies like this one, but he’s still the right choice for Nick. Nick is likable. Much is made of how Nick is “yuppie Mephistopheles,” the guy who talks around any argument about cigarettes with relish, never really engaging in the topic at hand. This is basically the purview of Fox News or, more recently, the bewildering Cold War nostalgia that moderate liberals in media seem to enjoy wallowing in. If I actually saw Nick Naylor as a talking head somewhere, I’m sure I would hate his guts. As the protagonist of a movie, even a satire, he’s someone I want to follow for the ride. It’s not the screenplay that makes me like him, nor is it his relationship with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright, whose character doesn’t add anything effective to the movie, but it’s not Bright’s fault). It’s Eckhart’s raw charm that makes Nick an enjoyable enough guy to follow around, the ability of the actor to play an actor who’s actually a lobbyist.
There are a bunch of similarly enjoyable people in the film. Robert Duvall plays the Godfather of Big Tobacco, appearing on screen for maybe four minutes and spending just about all of them either drinking or talking about mint juleps. Rob Lowe and Adam Brody are secretly the best part of the movie, playing the most Los Angeles movie agent in the world and his most devoted office assistant. (If they remade this movie, they’d be in Silicon Valley instead, but the effect would be the same.) Lowe in particular seems to spew one-liners with aplomb; this is Chris from Parks and Recreation with fewer smiles but the same unbelievable motor. In particular, I enjoy a scene where Jeff, standing in an intricate robe and staring out his office window into the dark of night, calls Nick to update him on the upcoming partnership between a major film and conglomerated tobacco. Nick is amazed at Jeff’s endurance: “When do you sleep?” he asks. “Sunday,” Jeff says matter-of-factly. J.K. Simmons is Aaron Eckhart’s spineless, shouty boss, BR, who gets one of the finest lines in a 2000s movie. Lambasting his team for falling cigarette sales, especially among teenagers, he tells them: “They’re cool. They’re available. And they’re addictive. People, the job is practically done for us.”
Polly and Bobby Jay, played by Maria Bello and David Koechner, round out Nick pretty neatly. Bobby Jay, inspired by the Kent State shootings, lobbies for guns; Polly, who’s been drinking heavily since puberty, lobbies for alcohol. Neither one of them is as glitzy (or as successful and high-profile) as Nick, but Polly in particular is more decent. Maybe it’s her professional struggles – she seems not to do quite as well as Nick or even Bobby Jay, although her counterparts agree that fetal alcohol syndrome is something of a brick wall – but she seems like the one who could exist outside the world of lobbying. She’s much more dry and self-effacing than Nick or Bobby Jay, further along on the path to becoming a real human being. Bobby Jay, of course, is not much more than a dressed-up redneck, sort of a D.C. rodeo clown, and it’s much harder to take him seriously than Nick.
It’s too bad that Polly is the only woman who is not supposed to read as “bitch” or “slut” in this entire film. The former role is filled by Kim Dickens, playing Nick’s ex-wife who doesn’t want her son to have much to do with his dad. Given what she must know about Nick, can you blame her? But she has spiky hair and leers at Nick and has a doctor boyfriend who lectures Nick about secondhand smoke, and Joey, with a little help from his dad, starts to view her as an impediment to what he wants. It’s an utterly thankless role; she only appears sympathetic in the film when she starts doing what Joey tells her to do. And it could be worse, because Dickens could have wound up in Katie Holmes’ role. Holmes plays Heather, a reporter who uses sex to squeeze interesting details out of Nick for an article she writes; all of the details, incidentally, are accurate, but they certainly make Nick look bad. When she gets her comeuppance – Nick tells the world, via the news, what she did, and ultimately she ends up doing podunk TV news – it’s supposed to be a triumph, a righteous bolt of vengeance. (BR, who steals one of Nick’s ideas and pitches it upstairs, gets what’s coming to him too: like everyone else from tobacco studies, he loses his job when the institute folds.) Nick manages to put that whore in her place, punishing her for the illicit sex she has with him; Nick, short a sixty-second montage where his contacts run away from him and he mopes around his apartment, doesn’t receive any kind of serious punishment for, well, being a subhuman parasite for goodness knows how long. Thank You for Smoking has a genuinely curious set of ethics; transgressors of business ethics and journalistic ethics are held up as worthy of condemnation, even if one thinks a little more personal responsibility might have served Nick.
Maybe the problem with Thank You for Smoking, in the end, is that history has twisted in a way that doesn’t make the film quite so enjoyable anymore. In 2017, the story of a white man who lies and talks around the obvious, leaving the wreckage of bleeding heart liberals and women around him, just doesn’t feel urgent. Whatever you think of the politics, Thank You for Smoking has entered the netherworld of satires which have, more or less, become real; in a way, that’s high praise.