“Michael Jordan plays ball, Charles Manson kills people, I talk.”
This is how ‘Thank You For Smoking’ protagonist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) rationalises his job. The points of reference are telling: like Jordan he’s a consummate professional, at the top of his game. Like Manson, he ‘enjoys’ a reputation as a mass-murderer – at least with the anti-smoking league who howl in protest at his lobbying tactics on behalf of the big tobacco companies. The self-deprecation of the “I talk” part of the statement emphasises the wry humour and affability that help get his less-than-socially-acceptable message across.
Naylor’s moral flexibility goes without saying. He socialises with similarly-employed spokespeople for alcohol and firearms – the MOD Squad, they call themselves (MOD an acronym for Merchants Of Death). When his ex-wife’s surgeon boyfriend castigates Naylor for not raising his son in a smoke-free environment, Naylor responds “I’m his father; you’re just fucking his mother.”
Does this make Naylor sound despicable? A callous cynic? Not so. He’s actually a pretty decent guy. Does the best job he can for his paymasters. Proves a good father to his son, despite his ex’s efforts to the contrary – the scenes between them are poignant and beautifully played. Written and directed by Jason Reitman, from Christopher Buckley’s novel, ‘Thank You For Smoking’ centres around a likeable man doing an ultimately risible job, that of presenting a negative message in a positive light. Even then, said message is more about freedom of choice than endorsement of product.
If all this sounds heavy and portentous, fear not. It’s funny as hell, sharply satirical, stylishly directed and brimming with whip-smart dialogue. The ensemble cast is to die for: Maria Bello as one of Naylor’s fellow lobbyists (her biggest coup: getting the Pope to endorse red wine), J.K. Simmonds as Naylor’s cut-throat boss, Rob Lowe as the most glib Hollywood executive this side of ‘The Player’, Robert Duvall as a Machiavellian tobacco baron, William H Macy as a bumbling senator and Katie Holmes as a scheming reporter out to expose our hero.
In the midst of this talent, Eckhart stands head and shoulders, delivering a career best performance. The phrase ‘lights up the screen’ would be a cheap gag in context of the film – except that it happens to be true.