There’s something exhilarating about watching a clever liar in full, resplendent flight. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhardt) has what he cheerfully describes as a “challenging” job: He represents the interests of the tobacco industry in a world that generally considers the product reprehensible. At the beginning of Thank You For Smoking, Nick is getting ready to defend himself on a Joan Lunden talk show, in the company of anti-smoking do-gooders and a cancer-stricken, bald teenaged boy.
Did I say defend himself? No, Nick attacks. He asks the audience what the tobacco business would possibly gain from the death of the young man. If anything, it would mean the loss of a customer. Instead, it’s the professional anti-smoking vigilantes who want the boy to die, because that makes their contributions go up. “This is nothing less,” Nick says, voice rising, “than trafficking in human misery.”
It only takes a few fancy footsteps like this and the studio audience is cheering, the boy gives Nick a high-five, and the erstwhile do-gooder is reduced to the status of a weasel. This is a very funny sequence, the first of many in this very funny movie. The humor largely depends on the gratification we feel in seeing a big, fat liar practice his art. The Music Man hit many of the same satisfying notes.
Granted, there’s lot more sex and bad language in Thank You For Smoking than there was in that 1962 film about a con man peddling imaginary musical instruments. The movie is based on the 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley, and in some respects improves on it. The role of Nick’s son Joey (Cameron Bright) has been enhanced, which provides an emotional thread to link the segments of the story. And there are bits that were terrific in the book are even better in full color on the screen.
Take the Hollywood sequence, for example. Nick and Joey pay a visit to a big Hollywood agent, Jeff (Rob Lowe), to discuss getting more actors to smoke onscreen. First they wait in the building’s spacious lobby, where the video being displayed shows an orca tearing into a seal. The agent’s fast-talking assistant, Jack (Adam Brody), then takes them to Jeff’s office, past an ornamental koi pond. “See that orange and white one? $7,000,” says Jack. “Makes you feel funny about eating sushi. But I guess you gotta.”
Next they pass a meditation garden, where an Asian man in robes, holding a rake, pauses as they go by. “Keep going,” Jack tells him. “That sand’s not going to rake itself.” Jack informs Nick that Jeff is a big fan of all things Oriental, and sure enough, behind his desk there is a large Japanese tapestry. It’s hung so that, as you talk with Jeff, your eyes keep drifting to the warrior with a sword at his neck, dying in a great spray of blood.
That night Jeff phones Nick with the results of the day’s negotiations. Although it’s midnight, Jeff is still working, juggling deals in Japan and London. “When do you sleep?” Nick asks. Jeff replies, “Sundays.”
You get the idea. While this nugget is only a small part of the movie, it’s filled with elements that are absolutely perfect, and that’s true for most of the film. The problem is that the film feels like a series of perfect nuggets strung together. One thing happens after another, but they don’t link up into a single plot. And unfortunately one of the more dramatic nuggets comes fairly early on. It promises to be something that will keep teasing tension along till the end. But, no, it gets swiftly resolved, and it’s on to the next episode.
There are some terrific characters and situations here; special mention needs to go to William H. Macy as Sen. Ortolan Finisterre (that name!), Nick’s cheese-eating nemesis, and to Robert Duvall as “The Captain,” the old-world tobacco baron in Winston-Salem, and to Sam Elliott as Lorne Lutch, the “Marlboro Man” with a grudge.
And there are some tantalizing themes, such as the absurdity of equating absolute license with the American ideal. After Nick displays his persuasive skills in Joey’s classroom, a little girl delivers a speech concluding “Freedom means we can do what we want because otherwise we wouldn’t be free and that’s why America is the best government in the world!” As Nick’s boss, BR (J.K. Simmons) chortles, after Nick does his stuff at a congressional hearing, “That freedom of choice thing works every time!”
But it would have been even better if the film had brought all these fine elements together into a single story. Part of the problem is built in: Once you’ve created a dazzling liar, what do you do with him? He could reform and become a better person; in The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill is tamed by his love for a pure maid. And in Thank You For Smoking, Nick’s son, Joey, gives him a reason to reconsider his work.
But Nick doesn’t become a better person; he just turns his talent for verbal twisting to different clients. This is an ambiguous conclusion, made more so because we see that Nick is a hero to Joey, and the boy is eager to learn dad’s skills. We watch him confuse and manipulate his mom, and later see Nick cheering as Joey wins a debating trophy. Is this really what we want for the kid?
Earlier, Joey had asked his dad if anyone could do the work he did, and Nick replied, “No, it requires a moral flexibility that most people don’t have.” The film concludes with this cherubic pre-teen learning moral flexibility, learning to be as clever a liar as his dad. You can’t exactly call it a happy ending.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.