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Breathe easy
A review of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING film review by CNash

Smoking is a global industry. It makes billions of dollars every year in America alone. The downside is that it kills 400,000 American people per year – that's about 1,200 per day. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to go up in front of an audience and promote smoking, but somebody has to do it. And in this case, that somebody is professional spin-doctor Nick Naylor. Thank You For Smoking centres around Nick (Aaron Eckhart), who is paid to promote an industry that most people can't find two good words to say anything about. In the opening scene of the film, a public health spokesman accuses the tobacco industry of wanting a cancer-stricken young boy to die. Cool as a cucumber, Nick replies, "If he dies, we lose him as a customer. We want kids alive and smoking."

Nick's a smooth talker. As he monologues to the camera, "Michael Jordan plays basketball; Charles Manson kills people; I talk." It's what he's good at; he can take any idea in the world and sell it to anyone who'll listen. In fact, he's not really interested in the tobacco industry's ups and downs; he just works for them and sells them to the media, providing an opposing viewpoint to the health-conscious critics. Thank You is one of those rare comedy-dramas that takes the viewer in so deep, they don't know whether to laugh at Nick's incredible feats of bullshit or take his views seriously.

The main plot of the film has Nick getting ready for acongressional hearing over Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy)'s campaign to put a large skull-and-crossbones image on every cigarette package, in an attempt to educate people (especially teenagers) of the dangers of smoking. Naturally, Big Tobacco is worried about their profits, and brings Nick in to counter the negative press that this move will bring. Nick has problems of his own – he's trying to be a good father to his son Joey (Cameron Bright), whom he's got joint custody of from his estranged wife (Kim Dickens). Nick takes Joey with him on business trips, and teaches him about winning arguments and debates with his personal philosophy – present a good argument, and you're never wrong.

Even though Thank You is focused on the issue of smoking, it never really comes off as pro-smoking – that's just the prevalent theme, used by the story to provide a backdrop to Nick's actions. You know that Nick would be just as good a speaker on any other subject. Tellingly, although one major plot point has Nick going to a movie producer in an attempt to bring casual smoking back to the big screen, observant viewers will note that none of the characters in the movie ever light up a cigarette on-camera. This isn't a case of Hollywood squeamishness over promoting smoking – they might as well have vetoed the entire film – it's a directorial decision, which adds to the film's satire.

Thank You is funny because its satire (through Nick) is very close to the PR practices of the real Big Tobacco. To tell a sympathetic tale about the dangers of smoking would be pointless; instead, the movie acknowledges that smoking has its dangers, and quickly moves away from the issue, turning even the most rational debates against smoking into points in its favour. During the congressional debate over the cigarette packaging, Nick turns Senator Finistirre's game of numbers into an attack on Vermont's cheese – cholesterol kills far more people per year than even cigarettes – forcing the beleaguered Senator to splutter "Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!"

Bringing up the rear are Nick's closest friends, the self-proclaimed "Merchants of Death" – Bobby (David Koechner, best remembered as the sports commentator from Anchorman) and Polly (Maria Bello), who represent the firearms and alcohol industries respectively. The three lobbyists meet every week for lunch; one of the funniest scenes of the movie sees them arguing with each other over which of their industries causes the most deaths per year. Nick, Bobby and Polly have a kind of mutual camaraderie; all three know that their jobs demonise them in the eyes of the whole world, but all continue to do it because, as Nick puts it, "Everyone has a mortgage to pay."

As you'd expect from a satirical film such as this, the soundtrack is comprised of songs that are entirely appropriate, kicking off with "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette", continuing through the movie with "Smoke Rings", and finishing up with "Greenback Dollar" over the ending credits. Although completely expected, the placement of the songs – and their very relevant lyrics – made me chuckle.

As far as the acting goes, the movie (naturally) belongs to Aaron Eckhart. This is the role he was born to play, far surpassing his mediocre performance in Erin Brockovitch six years ago. Kudos also must be given to the great JK Simmonds, who's starting to get a reputation as a cigar-chomping hard-headed executive after his similar role as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies – here, he plays Nick's boss, who takes orders directly from the heads of Big Tobacco and claims most of Nick's ideas as his own. One part that let me down somewhat was Katie Holmes' appearance as journalist Heather Holloway, who has a whirlwind affair with Nick in a cynical (and totally signposted) attempt to extract all of his secrets and air them in public. Holmes doesn't have any real purpose other than this; she's completely hollow. An honourary mention goes to Cameron Bright, who's becoming one of the most recognisable child actors of the decade.

At the end of the day, whether you're pro-smoking or anti-smoking, Thank You For Smoking – taking jabs at both sides of the argument – is a welcome breath of fresh air; a movie with an unorthodox message that isn't afraid to be politically incorrect when it has to, and avoids falling too far into the shmaltzy "separated dad bonds with son" stereotype that's all too prevalent in mainstream movies. I rate this movie as one of my favourite satires of the year – it's witty in all the right places, and never soapboxes or picks sides. Is smoking good or bad? In the end, as far as this movie's concerned, it really doesn't matter.

Thank You for Smoking

USA 2005
92 mins
Jason Reitman
David O. Sacks
Jason Reitman
from the novel by
Christopher Buckley
James Whitaker
Dana E. Glauberman
Rolfe Kent
production design
Steve Saklad
Aaron Eckhart
Maria Bello
Cameron Bright
Adam Brody
Sam Elliott
Katie Holmes
Rob Lowe
William H. Macy
Robert Duvall
review posted
17 June 2006