[Note: For some reason that supposedly involves a problem with the reels, the Sundance U.S. premiere screening on which this review is based was missing the Katie Holmes sex scene, which could be good for an extra half star.]
The state of discourse in modern news no longer depends on the facts, but on who can better twist them to their will. Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” provides a very observational study of the sort of rhetoric used to distort the facts and win over public opinion, but places these observations into a conventional and predictable story. Like the media that has propelled the style of communication in question, the film refuses to say anything constructive in the belief that nihilism makes it even-handed.
The film isn’t as funny as the highly publicized conflict over the sell of its distribution rights might have you believe, but does contain a series of energized and entertaining performances that stop it from being a complete failure.
Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist who spends his days appearing on TV as the man everybody hates until he wins them over with twisted yet persuasive arguments. His private life consists of building a relationship with his son from his failed marriage, Joey (Cameron Bright), and meeting after work with his two friends—an alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and a gun lobbyist (David Koechner).
The centerpiece of the film invloves Nick’s son following his father and watching him fight politicians and, in a hilarious scene with Rob Lowe, try to get cigarettes back into the movies.
William H. Macy plays Nick’s nemesis, the opportunistic Senator Ortolan Finistirre, who wages war against the tobacco companies with stricter surgeon general warnings that contain the poison symbol with the skull and crossbones. Finistirre is all about his image, just like Nick, but he’s not as talented. His lack of skills doesn’t make for a very engaging duel, he never seems to have a chance.
As a sexy reporter who is writing an expose on Nick, Katie Holmes is an even more loaded plot element than the proverbial gun in the first act. Like most of the other characters, she is a cynic who is only concerned with building her own career, and the story involving her character contains absolutely no surprises.
For all the attempts to build the film off of the relationship between Nick and his son, the closest the film comes to a sincere character is a cameo from Sam Elliott as the man who was more or less the model for the Marlboro man, but who now recognizes the killing power of cigarettes and is working as a spokesman against them. But he too has no sustained intrigue.
Too often the characters seem to bend to the will of the plot. For example, it isn’t believable that a savvy PR man wouldn’t know journalistic etiquette for off-the-record statements, regardless of how sexy the reporter is. Likewise, the ultimate resolution of the storyline is totally obvious, and the film’s decision to drag out the response is an insult to the audience’s intelligence.
Reitman is at his best when observing the state of debate in modern politics. He also gives the film a peppy, professional sheen. But he still has a lot to learn about storytelling. Hopefully when he makes his second film, he’ll have something to say.