“You want an easy job, go join the Red Cross,” someone says deep into Thank You for Smoking, a gleeful topical farce about capitalist mendacity based on Christopher Buckley’s bestseller. The implication, made drummingly plain in 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 bulletheaded amorality. It’s an under-flogged 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-postmod marketing-media experiment, and governmental depravity. Thanks to the institutionalization of irony, it’s difficult to bitch out the bad guys persuasively, but it presents a Miltonic 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.
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, mercenary, and unscrupulous, hitting talk shows with a straight face and pressing Hollywood flesh in an effort to make smoking in movies cool again. Narrating in amused confessional mode, Naylor is a pure-blooded dog-eating-dog until his son (Cameron Bright) presents him with a ready-made conflict: try to rationalize your actions (tobacco fatality rates are quoted repeatedly) but still be a good dad.
In Hollywood (Reitman is Ivan’s son), the dilemma only has one schmaltzy answer, and the film tries to not cop out on its way to a fizzle. But Smoking is all funaholic appetizer anyway, buttressing Eckhart’s boy-faced sell-monster with competitive lobbyist buddies (boozer Maria Bello, gun-excuser David Koechner), a splenetic boss (J.K. Simmons, of course), and a humorless crusading senator (William H. Macy). 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. While subplots working in Katie Holmes’s dewy-eyed reporter and Robert Duvall’s aged billionaire fall limp, an extra laurel should be laid upon the crown of TV vet Adam Brody, whose bouncy salvo as mega-agent Rob Lowe’s sycophantic assistant 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 ‘n’ roll with g-forces (outside of an activist 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 semi-hero 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? Think of it as 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?