Aaron Eckhart is so urbanely scuzzy and self-confident as Thank You for Smoking’s eloquent tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor that he almost obscures the weak-kneed facileness of Jason Reitman’s cigarette industry and “culture of spin” satire. A spokesman for the Winston-Salem conglomerates via the euphemistically named Academy of Tobacco Studies, Naylor is a cretin who uses double-talk and misdirection to shift blame from his clients to their opponents, cheerfully and charmingly smiling his way through combative conversations in which he preaches the values of personal responsibility and freedom of choice. A cross between Eckhart’s In the Company of Men chauvinist and Nic Cage’s Lord of War gunrunner, Naylor is a spin doctor incarnate, successfully eschewing logic, consistency, and coherence in campaigning for his death-dealing business, whether it be on Joan London’s daytime talk show—where his attack dog tactics turn him into a mini-celebrity—or on Dennis Miller’s late-night chatfest. Convinced that “if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” the charismatically odious Naylor lunches with his counterparts in the alcohol and firearm trade—their apocalyptic horseman trio known as The MOD Squad (as in Merchants of Death)—and promotes smoking to the classmates of his idolizing son Joey (Cameron Bright), all while believing that his deceptive profession is not only acceptable but is, in fact, the very essence of our greedy, self-interested, amoral American way.
Such cynicism is certainly the attitude governing Reitman’s film (based on Christopher Buckley’s novel), which, by skewering not only Naylor and his questionable practices but also Hollywood, the media, and preachy politicians, tediously subscribes to a cover-your-ass school of social comedy in which everyone and everything prove fair game for ridicule. A teenage chemotherapy patient is dubbed “Cancer Boy,” William H. Macy’s anti-smoking Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre (yes, that’s really his name)—intent on smacking skull-and-crossbones labels on all cigarette packs—wears Birkenstocks and has a desk covered in maple syrup bottles, Katie Holmes’s intrepid journalist Heather Holloway sleeps with her sources for inside information, and Rob Lowe’s movie producer is more than happy, for the right price, to get in bed with Big Tobacco (as well as a Middle Eastern sultan known as “The Hitler of the South Pacific”) to depict smoking in movies. Intent on avoiding anything like an actual point of view, Thank You for Smoking instead opts for an air of condescending, holier-than-thou snarkiness, looking down with equal disdain at every one of its soulless, avaricious characters, a group that also includes dying Marlboro Man Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), whose noble, supposedly steadfast opposition to the business he spent a lifetime advertising is easily eliminated with a shiny silver briefcase full of cold, hard, tax-free cash.
All are without scruples and all are for sale (“I suppose we all gotta pay the mortgage,” is Naylor’s favorite facetious answer to why he does what he does)—a depressingly wishy-washy stance that Reitman cowers behind so as not to offend any of his stereotypically handled capitalist targets. The mistake in such an approach, though, is that by so evenhandedly spreading the blame about, his story becomes a rudderless exercise in ironic, tongue-in-cheek misanthropy. That cutesy graphics, subtitles, narration (delivered by Eckhart with self-conscious smarminess), and antiquated pro-smoking country music ditties are all part of the mise-en-scène package is in keeping with the film’s superficiality, just as the director’s decision to refrain from showing his nicotine-addicted protagonist actually light up—an attempt to avoid glorrifying smoking while simultaneously making the pro-smoking Naylor more likeable—is indicative of his consistently employed have-it-every-way strategy. Despite a few moments of mild comedy from the underutilized MOD Squad (including Maria Bello’s liquor activist discussing fetal alcohol syndrome and David Koechner’s NRA nut trying to entice Naylor’s son with a compact gun), what satire demands is that a position, any position, is taken with regards to the topic at hand. Like its scumbag lobbyist, however, all that Thank You for Smoking really peddles is a smoggy cloud of “moral flexibility.”