Satiric movies have two big hurdles. They've got to upstage reality, which remains on a rigorous program of auto-satirization. And they must avoid having a heart. Should goodness prevail in some way, the satirist suggests that mankind is redeemable -- the kiss of death to effective satire.
Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking betrays a tiny, half-hidden heart, but it's not enough to kill this smart and gleefully funny film set in the world of a cigarette-industry lobbyist.
Indeed, writer-director Reitman's strength is his shameless embrace of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the happily unrepentant public face of a tobacco trade group. When the stress of the job gets to him, he commiserates with equally hard-bitten spokespersons for booze (Maria Bello) and guns (David Koechner). Together they're the Moderation Council, but they prefer "Merchants of Death," or Mod Squad.
It's the film's job to set Nick a series of moral tests. It's satire's hope that he'll fail each one. On a chat-show about the dangers of cigarettes, Nick ends up flummoxing the pro-health congressional aide -- and high-fiving the bald teen-age cancer victim sitting between them. Nick's winning argument: Why would the cigarette industry want to kill its best customers?
Based on the 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking is as close as you'll get to a mainstream movie about rhetoric. Nick faces everyone with the same ethics-free faith that he can talk his way into their epistemological panties. On career day, he convinces his son's grade-school classmates that smoking is a way to challenge authority. At home, he advises paternally: "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
Nick's slickness pleases his corporate mentor (Robert Duvall, in a tailor-made cameo as "the Captain") and intrigues the Hollywood dealmaker who "invented product placement" (Rob Lowe). But it stalls with his ex-wife -- and increasingly on the job. Along the way he hooks up with a suspiciously friendly young newspaper reporter (Katie Holmes), survives kidnapping (and near-assassination by nicotine patch) by anti-smoking terrorists, and prepares for a congressional hearing about a new skull-and-crossbones warning label pushed by a Birkenstock-wearing U.S. senator from Vermont (William H. Macy).
With the yelling over smoking having subsided in recent years, Thank You for Smoking might in some ways be just past its shelf life. But it still manages to be a hair more outrageous than the headlines. And while a comeuppance of sorts awaits Nick, any fears that Thank You For Smoking will bare a heart -- even as regards his adoring son -- splinter in a scene in which Naylor's charged with offering hush money to a cancer-stricken former Marlboro Man. The episode resolves around essential human greed and, quite properly, leaves the film lacking a viable role model.