“You want an easy job, go join the Red Cross,” someone says well into Thank You for Smoking, a gleeful farce about capitalist mendacity based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 best-seller. The implication, made drummingly plain in the film’s every bon mot, is that our ethical barometers skew lazily toward goodness, and that the toughest tasks, appropriate only for the meat-eaters among us, are those that require bullet-headed amorality. It’s an underflogged axiom of American business — if only Jason Reitman’s movie had more muscle in its whip arm.
What seems worthy of modern satire is often a hair’s breadth from pillorying itself, and the gray zone between unamusingly tedious and roaringly redundant seems to be shrinking with every new reality show, post-postmodern marketing-media experiment, and governmental depravity. What’s to mock anymore? For such a narrative to lock gears, a certain self-knowledge, an ironic sense of first-person evildoing, is unavoidable, but it presents this dilemma: How do scumbags look in the mirror and explain themselves to their children? As it is, Buckley tried and failed to plumb the rational depths of a tobacco lobbyist’s moral vacuum, and so does the movie — it remains an appalling mystery. “Paying the mortgage” is the basest rationalization given, but, as we all know, there are more livable ways to do that.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the go-getter in question, an ex-jock-style salesman who puts a public face on the cigarette industry: smug, effective, and unscrupulous, straight-facedly hitting talk shows with booing audiences and pressing Hollywood flesh in an effort to make smoking in movies cool again. Narrating in amused confessional mode, Naylor is a happy, pure-blooded dog-eating dog in a mercenary media-drome until his son (played by creepy-kid-of-the-moment Cameron Bright, also currently in Ultraviolet) wakes him up and presents him with a ready-made conflict: Try to rationalize your real-world actions (annual tobacco fatality rates are quoted repeatedly) but still be a good dad.
In Hollywood (first-time director Jason Reitman is Ivan’s son), the dilemma has only one schmaltzy answer, and Thank You for Smoking tries not to cop out on its way to a fizzle. But the movie is all funaholic appetizer anyway, buttressing Eckhart’s boy-faced sell-monster with competitive lobbyist pals (boozer Maria Bello, gun-excuser David Koechner), a splenetic boss (J.K. Simmons), and a humorless Christian-Senator adversary (William H. Macy). The attempts toward blackened corporate humor are strenuous, from an argument between the lobbying lunch buddies over whose product is more deadly (and therefore more of an achievement to spin), to a daytime-TV appearance by a “cancer kid” whom, Naylor insists, Big Tobacco wants to keep alive and smoking.
But Thank You for Smoking is no densely conceived cut of steak; Buckley is best at sharp-tongued one-liners, which constitute a lion’s portion of the script, and for that it’s difficult to be ungrateful. “We sell cigarettes,” Simmons’ hard-charging exec bellows in frustration. “They’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us!” Several subplots (most notably those involving Katie Holmes’ dewy-eyed reporter and Robert Duvall’s aged billionaire) fall limp, but sitcom vet Adam Brody — as the sycophantic assistant to Rob Lowe’s mega-agent — crams more industry mockery into two minutes of screen time than State and Main managed at all.
But instead of hitting the gas and allowing the scenario to rock and roll with g forces (outside of an anti-tobacco-terrorist kidnapping and assault with nicotine patches), Reitman keeps his movie small, unvaried, slack, and — deliberately and oddly — completely smoke-free. Not a single butt is lit, even though Eckhart’s semihero is forced to quit halfway through, with no discernible impact on his disposition or the story. Was Reitman nervously pandering to the smokeless choir, or did he decide that actual smoking, in a movie wholly taken up with how to whitewash death, disease, and culpability, was beside the point? Did Buckley’s hero help write the screenplay, and did Raleigh-Winston money change hands? The end product is a little disorienting — think Dr. Strangelove without bombs, or Super Size Me without burgers. How deep can a satiric bite be when the object of outrage has been wrung out of the mix, just as a lobbyist would’ve wished?