Thank You for Smoking - Review of a Dark Comedy

 


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There’s something to be said for movies which work outside the normal Hollywood framework. While such films never receive the exposure of their more-expensive cousins, they often feature superior casts and scripts which aren’t afraid to tackle controversial subject matter. Thank You for Smoking is one such film.

The story revolves around Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a silver-tongued lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Nick gets paid to talk, and he’s damn good at it. But when he’s not convincing people to try cigarettes, he’s busy trying to help raise his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), a curious kid who shares his father’s gift of gab. Along the way, he travels to Hollywood to get more smoking on the big screen, offers a payoff to a cancer-ridden former spokesman (Sam Elliott), and enjoys a fling with an ambitious reporter (Katie Holmes). All the while trying to teach his son right from wrong, even though his actions constantly blur the line between the two.

Directed and adapted from the Christopher Buckley novel by Jason Reitman, the film blurs the line between drama and dark comedy. And this blend works very well at the beginning of the film. Take, for example, the scene where Nick must go to his son’s school and talk about what he does for a living. Or, the weekly meeting between Nick, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). Between them, they represent the tobacco, alcohol, and firearm industries and jokingly refer to themselves as the M. O. D. Squad (or Merchants of Death).

These scenes seem to click and really get the film off to a promising start. And with actors like Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes, William H. Macy, J. K. Simmons, Robert Duvall, and Rob Lowe, it’s hard to imagine that the movie would fall flat along the way. Unfortunately, it does.

Thank You for Smoking just seems to run out of steam somewhere around the halfway point. Sub-plots are established and resolved, but you really don’t care that much when they’re over.

Take, for example, the relationship between Nick and ambitious reporter Heather Holloway. When they’re not having sex, he’s telling her all kinds of sensitive information. Predictably, she uses this information for a story which nearly ruins him. When he later gets his revenge, it seems forced and not particularly clever. Of course, it doesn’t help that there’s very little chemistry between Eckhart and Holmes (mostly the latter’s fault, in my opinion).

More precisely, the film suffers from a lack of cleverness. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect that something was lost in the translation. This is a movie which sets itself up to deliver biting commentary after biting commentary, all the while peppering the dialogue with dark and sarcastic musings. But when the payoffs are delivered, most of them just sort of hang out there. In fact, some of them don’t even make that much sense (the scene between Eckhart and Sam Elliott or Eckhart and William H. Macy).

It’s all premise and no payoff. However, you could still do worse on a trip to the video store. The early parts of the movie are enjoyable, and it’s chock-full of great actors to enjoy. Just don’t get your hopes up.

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