‘Thank You for Smoking’ kicks butt | AspenTimes.com

‘Thank You for Smoking’ kicks butt

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aaron Eckhart, right, stars in Jason Reitman's "Thank You for Smoking." (Dale Robinette/Fox Searchlight)

Joey Naylor asks his father for help on the homework assignment he’s been wrestling with. “Why does America have the best government in the world?” the son poses. “Our endless appeals system,” Nick Naylor shoots back.It’s one of the best quips in “Thank You for Smoking,” by 28-year-old director Jason Reitman (the son of Ivan Reitman, director of “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”). It’s funny not only because there is more than a grain of truth in it for Nick, who, as the lead lobbyist for the tobacco industry, uses obfuscation, delay and uncertainty as his tools in trade. The joke works also because Nick delivers the answer as if that very question had been on his mind.The short answer, however, is not a satisfactory response for adolescent Joey (Cameron Bright). But in his fuller answer, Nick (Aaron Eckhart) doesn’t give Joey the predictable bromide the teacher is probably looking for. Instead, he dissects the question: Does America have the best government in the world? What constitutes “best”?

This is “Thank You for Smoking” in a nutshell – a funny movie that picks apart accepted truths about contemporary America, and, when given a second or third chance to fall back on the politically correct, takes delight in refusing to do so. In fact, Reitman, in Aspen last week to participate in Aspen Shortsfest, told an audience that the studio he was first working with on the film insisted on a script that had the incorrigible Nick doing a 180 in the third act. Reitman refused, opting to wait a few years to make his feature-length debut.What “Thank You for Smoking,” adapted from the 1993 Christopher Buckley novel, is least politically correct about is one of the easiest targets the world has to offer. Nick, however, is unapologetic about his job, of giving the cigarette companies as unrestricted a path as possible from the tobacco fields of North Carolina to the mouths of smokers. He takes pride in how good he is at it, and he is damn good. In the opening sequence, Nick’s silver tongue dominates a TV talk-show panel, and quickly wins to his side a cancer-stricken, cigarette-smoking kid.Nick, of course, has his sleazy side to him. He regularly gathers with his fellow Merchants of Death – the M.O.D. Squad – in the alcohol and gun lobbies (Maria Bello and David Koechner) to boast of their professional successes. Which are measured, yes, in mortality statistics.But Nick is far from being all slime, a complexity that gives “Thank You for Smoking” much of its topsy-turvy tone. Nick is a committed father. More important, he is capable of self-reflection, upon which he comes to the conclusion that he is well paid for a job he is very good at and enjoys immensely. It makes much of the audience at least consider that they would trade places with Nick. Pumping up the sympathy factor, Nick is kidnapped by anti-tobacco forces, and subjected to the ultimate ironic torture for a cigarette pusher.

Nick and Big Tobacco escape the magnifying glass of moral judgment here; the point is hammered home that everyone knows cigarettes are bad for you, and no smoker walks blindly into his addiction. In the libertarian angle of “Thank You for Smoking,” it is not the nicotine peddlers – folks who sell poison, but do so with integrity – put through the wringer, but the morality police.Sen. Ortolan Finnistirre (William H. Macy), chairing a hearing meant to further demonize tobacco, is himself made to answer for the corrupt, compromised ways of Congress. (He is also hung with a name like Ortolan Finnistirre, while his nemesis gets to be Nick Naylor.) And representing the press is Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), a Washington reporter who has sex with Nick, then stabs him with a front-page exposé.For her sins, Heather finds herself shipped to a small, Florida TV outpost, where she covers a hurricane from the inside. Ever thus to duplicitous do-gooders.

“Thank You For Smoking” is showing at the Isis Theatre in Aspen and Movieland in El Jebel. Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Jason Reitman. Produced by David O. Sacks. Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley. Photographed by Jim Whitaker. Edited by Dana E. Glauberman. Music by Rolfe Kent and Matt Messina. Running time: 92 minutes. Classified: R (language and some sexual content).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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