'Thank You for Smoking': Mentholated Satire

Thank You for Smoking
Katie Holmes stars with Aaron Eckhart, as a spokesman for Big Tobacco, in the satirical "Thank You for Smoking." (Copyright Twentieth Century Fox)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

If you're ambushed by a surprise question, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara has often said, just answer the one you wish had been asked.

Coming from the man who troubleshot one of Washington's worst public relations problems in 20th-century history -- also known as the Vietnam War -- these are words of empirical wisdom. And they're words to live by, if you're Nick Naylor, the fictional protagonist of "Thank You for Smoking." In this droll, if not roundly satisfying, adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, he is a lobbyist for the tobacco industry who realizes that disingenuousness -- that cardinal virtue of the Washington insider -- is a moral survival strategy: Don't think of cigarettes as a health hazard, Nick tells appalled audiences and hostile fellow panelists on his talk show circuit. Consider them (and here, he braces himself with a cheery all-American smile) a symbol of America's right to choose.

Nick, played with devilish charm by Aaron Eckhart, knows what he's talking about. After all, he works for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a research institution that, so far, has found nothing to corroborate those wild claims that smoking causes, you know. So what if the tobacco companies are funding the academy -- don't they have a right to be concerned about public health, too?

Watching Nick literally get away with murder is the wicked fun of "Smoking." It's just too bad there isn't more of it. As a satire on Tobacco Inc.'s outrageous ability to market carbon monoxide as the elixir of life, this movie should be packing more nicotine. It should feel -- parents, health care professionals and teachers, please bear with our irresponsible metaphor -- like a deep, long drag on a Marlboro Red. You know: that sublime buzz that also makes you aware of its serious consequences.

Unfortunately, the movie, written and directed by Jason Reitman (son of comedy filmmaker Ivan of "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" fame), is filtered too heavily with moral redemption. Nick may be an amiable slimeball who bends the truth for the likes of Joe Camel, for instance, but it's just a matter of time before he faces up to the life lessons he's offering his 12-year-old son Joey (Cameron Bright). The movie's underlying commentary -- that Nick's self-termed "moral flexibility" is part and parcel of Washington's everyday business -- is hardly earth-shattering news. Hands up, anyone out there who's shocked -- shocked! -- to learn our fair city teems with spin doctors toiling for morally dubious clients.

Even when Nick shows his stuff -- using canny smoke and mirrors to fluster Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), who wants to put a skull and crossbones on every cigarette pack in America -- there's something too pat and easy about the process. Finistirre, after all, is a card-carrying, Birkenstock-wearing liberal senator from Vermont. He'd need five extra characteristics to reach one-dimensional status. As is, he's an easy target. Where's the fight?

There's also not a lot of dimension to Washington, uh, Probe reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), who considers her naked body just another tool in the procurement of facts from a source. It's clear from the get-go, she plans to ensnare Nick in her manipulative endgame, but it's hard to buy Holmes, who could pass for a middle school student, as a jaded femme fatale with a journalism degree.

If the movie falls short of its primary task -- first-rate Washington satire -- it's much more successful delivering the insider gags along the way. Eckhart, whose regular-Joe demeanor was the perfect face for his darker purposes in films such as "In the Company of Men," repeats the effect here. He's the nicest operator you could hope to meet in the greenroom.

You can almost smell the cigar smoke, too, in the Washington restaurant where he meets his regular lunch partners: gun lobby booster Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) and Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), a flack for the alcohol industry. They dub themselves the MOD Squad, aka the Merchants of Death, boasting about the death count stats they must continually address. Nick is the reigning king, of course.

His special mission to Hollywood, his awestruck son in tow, is another enjoyable element. While Joey listens in, Nick enlists superagent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) to arrange a post-coital smoking scene in a high-profile movie, starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

"Does Brad Pitt blow smoke rings?" Nick asks.

"I don't have that information," says Jeff, who clearly intends to find out.

Scenes like this, funny as they are, make "Smoking" a droll romp rather than unfiltered satire; Buckley's wittily malignant novel was much more of the latter. The movie finds the perfect blend of seriousness, poignancy and sheer yuks when Nick travels to a California ranch to present a suitcase full of guilt money ("a gift") to Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), the cigarette ad cowboy who -- inconveniently for the tobacco industry -- is dying from lung cancer and talking publicly. Not only must Nick use his oily legerdemain to persuade a dying man to accept the bribe, he must help Lorne find a way to overcome his last shred of dignity. That Nick pulls it off -- and makes us like him in spite of it -- is testament to the uncompromising movie that "Smoking" could have been.

Thank You for Smoking (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and some sexual content.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company