Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a smarmy lobbyist for the tobacco industry and self-described "merchant of death" whose job it is to convince Americans that cigarettes won't kill you. During the first few zippy minutes of Thank You for Smoking, Naylor is at the top of his game – smooth talking and quick thinking. Soon, though, as he tries to broker a deal with a Hollywood superagent (Rob Lowe) to make smoking in the movies sexy again, sleeps with a newspaper reporter (the increasingly unwelcome Katie Holmes) doing a piece on him, and contends with a self-righteous Senator (William H. Macy) who wants to put a skull and crossbones on every package of cigarettes, Naylor soon comes off as a little directionless – as does, unfortunately, the movie.
Funny but not funny enough, smart but not smart enough, there's something unsatisfying about Thank You for Smoking. Especially considering that, with its plum cast and easy targets, it could have hit a home run.
I think first-time feature filmmaker Reitman – the 28-year-old son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman – should have insisted upon an extra couple of takes for every scene, to tighten up the pace and get more energy out of his actors. Eckhart skates by on his natural charisma, but his costars come across as a little lazy (though I'm sure they were all having a great time). Also, the film seems like Hollywood's idea of what Washington politics are like – it's a poor study, regretfully under-researched. (Even Naylor's LA adventures don't feel accurate, which is a surprise, given Reitman's Tinseltown upbringing. The agency depicted in the film is a toothless parody of the real thing.)
Finally, in what may be the film's ultimate inside joke, not a single cigarette is smoked during the entire story. Ha ha, I guess. But when a doctor tells Naylor that he has to quit smoking, and it's supposed to be a big deal, the fact that we haven't seen him so much as look at a cigarette beforehand kills the gravity of the moment.
I don't want to come down too hard on this film. It's got some amusing dialogue that expounds nicely upon the phenomenon known as "spin", and it takes us in with a spin of its own, by making us root for a protagonist who is essentially a scumbag. (Naylor is shown as a happy-go-lucky guy who loves his son and seems like he could take or leave his job – this latter detail may explain why the story doesn't succeed.) Points also for James Whitaker's slick cinematography and Rolfe Kent's jaunty score. But ultimately I can't recommend Thank You for Smoking. It could have been a razor-sharp sendup of politics and hypocrisy, but Reitman and company just didn't try hard enough.