n 1994, when Christopher Buckley published his comic novel Thank You For Smoking–a squib on the culture of spin-and-counterspin that, it’s quaint to say, “pervades Washington these days,”–pop satire was just starting to shrink. Today, cutting edge lampoonery comes almost entirely in literal 800-word stories in The Onion and three minute, monotopical sketches on The Daily Show.
Plot-wise, Thank You is The Insider turned inside out. In a seductively witty opening montage, Nick Naylor, lobbyist for the American Academy of Tobacco Sciences (Aaron Eckhart; the blonde wholesomeness, the dopey slickness–it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is the role he was genetically engineered to play) introduces himself, his words turning into machine gun bullets. “I’m the Colonel Sanders of cigarettes,” he proclaims.
Yes he is. And Washington’s chickens are out to get him. Reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes; ugh) is working to expose him. Senator Finistirre of Vermont (William H. Macy; his interpretation of a Capitol Hill Democrat a conservative’s guilty pleasure; well-meaning and wobbly in that William H. Macy kind of way on the outside, hypocritically cold and self-promoting on the inside) is leading a crusade to brand all cigarette packs with an oversized skull-and-crossbones. A former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) is about to go public with his lung cancer. And, to top it all off, cigarettes just aren’t cool anymore.
Naylor aims for each in turn. He lambastes neo-puritan public-health officials, and charms a cancer-stricken boy, on daytime TV. He starts beguiling Holloway. He takes a briefcase full of cash to the Marlboro Man; and when he proves too reticent, Naylor spins him like a top (the mark of great satire: not even cancer victims get off easy).
To watch Naylor at work is to get Thank You’s axial gag: He is a man no longer capable of not spinning, and the world doesn’t care. By way of homework advice to his pre-teen son, he says “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” Trying to convince his ex-wife to let his son go with him on his mission to Hollywood, where he plans to make cigarettes cool again by getting them back on the silver screen, he urges her to consider how many electoral votes California has.
Writer-director Jason Reitman, scion son of producer-director Ivan Reitman, does his best work on this level of detail. When Naylor meets with Hollywood super-agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) to strike a deal for a sci-fi thriller, it’s Megall’s effortlessly fake personal assistant, Jack Bein (Adam Brody)–on camera for 90 seconds, tops–that you’re glued to. This sort of attention fills every scene, every line, with sardonic expectation.
It also adds an over-clever quality that, in the second half of the film, foments a growing sense of confusion. Instance: Reitman made sure that throughout Thank You, no one is actually seen smoking. It is, as he notes, a film about the hysteria surrounding cigarettes. Not cigarettes themselves. Touché. But, following a bizarre kidnapping and some bizarre torture, when Naylor’s doctor tells him he can’t ever smoke again and Naylor starts to flip out, a haze descends. Wait, wait–did he even smoke in the first place?
Then there’s the problem that couldn’t have been avoided. Satire works when the world it presents–its targets: Public health as a moral issue, muculent politicians, licentious lobbying–is more ridiculous than the world its audience lives in. Everything in Thank You seems duly over-the-top. But not as over-the-top as it would have seemed back in 1994. We’ve come a long way, baby. When Buckley’s book first came out, when it was still legal to smoke in public places, it would have been inconceivable to put a skull-and-crossbones on a pack of cigarettes; that’s why it was as funny as it was. In 2006, the Canadian government earnestly covers a third of each pack with full color pictures of rotting yellow teeth, lung tumors, and stroke-gnarled brain tissue; kind of dulls the pirate emblem’s comic brilliance. Likewise, the artless horse trading between big tobacco and movie studios comes across as slightly less farcical in light of Thank You’s own rather obvious product-placement shots for Coke.
As it turns out, Naylor wasn’t as successful at beguiling that reporter as he thought he was. Her reportage runs and his life of spin starts to wobble just as Senator Finistirre’s hearings on the evils of tobacco get underway. The only thing that can redeem him is a little bit of libertarian-infused honesty. Can he muster it?
Thank You doesn’t overwhelm, but its rich, flavorful execution will have you hankering (though remember, no research has conclusively proved a link to addiction) for more of the same.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.