262 – Thank You for Smoking

f you were head of an ethically challenged industry, you’d want Nick Naylor on your side, lobbying the holy crap out of everyone. Nick would have you believing your lung cancer has nothing to do with the industry he represents, Big Tobacco, and that the real issue here is the freedom of adults across America to choose what they want to choose, and isn’t that worth fighting for?

Nick (Aaron Eckhart) is so slick, he’s able to accuse an antismoking advocate of hoping that lung-cancer patients die, because if they lived then he (the advocate) would see his budget slashed. Then he tells a shocked studio audience that his organization is launching a $50 million campaign to discourage kids from smoking. Slick and effective!

When not spinning, spinning, and spinning, Nick commiserates with fellow spokespersons for industries of ill repute: Polly (Maria Bello), the liquor companies; and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), the gun companies. Together, they are…… the MOD Squad, wherein MOD stands for Merchants of Death. A little gallows humor is necessary when you peddle mortality.

Anyway, the idea is that Nick must spin Smoking Is Good, from deriding “questionable” scientific studies that disagree with his premise to lobbying Hollywood for more product placement (that is, no more would cigarettes be held in movies only by Bad Guys or Europeans – the heros would get them, too). Oh, and pay off the Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott, who’s bitterly dying of cancer. And deal with a duplicitous boss (J. K. Simmons, who plays J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films). And be spirited about by the Head Honcho of Big Tabacka, The Captain (Robert Duvall).

It’s a lot for poor ol’ Nick, but that’s not all – he has to be a role model of sorts to his young son, who dotes upon him while living with his mom (and her boyfriend) in Nick’s house, while Nick gets an apartment.

But don’t feel too bad for Nick, since he gets to shag nearly every female in the story. But not in the movie, since it’s not a movie of infinite length. But then I’m comparing the movie to the book by Christopher Buckley, and that’s not entirely fair.

The problem with the movie is that it’s wit, so wicked and sharp in the book, has been dulled a bit; it feels Hollywoodized, as if everything has to be Just So. As if it’s okay to point and laugh at the absurdity of pimping for cigarettes from a distance, but not to get in close and snark at the details.

The story also suffers from a shifted focus. In the book, Nick’s relationship with his son was one of the lesser threads, but in the movie it’s at the forefront. My guess is that the makers (including the director and writer, Jason Reitman) figured this would make the movie a better sell across various demographics. This is what happens when a plot gets Hollywoodized – it tries to appeal to too many people. Kind of odd for a movie that wasn’t supposed to be a blockbuster, anyway.

On the bright side, the casting is spot on, particularly Eckhart, who is aces in roles of dubious morality. Sure, he’s an insufferable, randy cad, but he’s not a nasty jerk, so we kind of root for him but deplore his intentions.

Just about everyone else is a secondary character, except for Nick’s son, Joey (Cameron Bright), and thankfully the young actor wasn’t melodramatic or maudlin or hammy, or any of a number of thespianic maladies that affect novices. Point of fact, he was quite charming and convincing.

Not so convincing was the often-miscast Mrs. Tom Cruise. How is it the Katie Holmes keeps getting grownup roles when she looks like she’s about two years late for her high school reunion? (Side note: Holmes’ character, a reporter, is described in the book and the movie as having nice breasts. This wasn’t weird to see in the book, but it made no sense in the movie, as Holmes herself is, uh, lacking.)

The bottom line is that Thank You misses the mark just a tad by way of a shift in plot focus and a dulling of sharp satire.

Thank You for Smoking: **1/2

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