There may be a scathing film to be made on the subject of spin, but Thank You for Smoking isn't it. The writer-director Jason Reitman fails to convey sufficient despair at the idea of a world in which - as the lead character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), tells his young son - "If you argue correctly, you are never wrong."
The film centres on the Academy of Tobacco Studies, where sharp-suited PR wizards spend their mornings disputing cancer statistics on television, and their afternoons plotting to promote cigarettes as a fashion accessory. Naylor, the academy's vice-president, counts converting a 15-year-old cancer victim to the pro-smoking cause among his greatest achievements. The anti-smoking lobbyists, led by the perpetually flustered Senator Ortolan K Finistirre (William H Macy), can only marvel at his audacity.
Naylor hits upon a big mission: to get Hollywood into bed with the tobacco lobby. "When someone smokes in a movie, they're either a psychopath or a European," he complains. "The message Hollywood needs to get out is: 'Smoking is cool.'" He hits on the notion of paying film studios to have A-list actors puffing on screen. The spaced-out Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (played by Rob Lowe in an alarming kimono) guarantees him that, for just $25,000, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brad Pitt could be floating naked in zero gravity, blowing smoke rings.
While Naylor tries to get this ambitious project off the ground, dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. His young son wants to know how Daddy can justify what he does for a living; Senator Finistirre is demanding that Naylor testify at a hearing into the harmful effects of nicotine addiction; and a public relations disaster is looming in the shape of the original star of the Marlboro billboards (Sam Elliott), who is now dying of cancer. A go-getting reporter (Katie Holmes) is trailing Naylor with the intention of writing a profile that may not be as flattering as he hopes. Most worryingly, sinister anti-smoking extremists promise that they will kill Naylor in seven days. And still he maintains that cigarettes are harmless.
One of the film's problems is that the script is in love with Naylor's habit of making jokes about taboo topics - Charles Manson, the Kent State University shootings, children with cancer, seal-clubbing. None of these gags works. Naylor boasts about being the Michael Jordan of conversation, but evidence of this is in short supply. "You know that guy who can pick up any girl?" he asks. "I'm him. On crack." I'm no basketball expert, but that doesn't scream "slam-dunk" to me. The abiding impression is one of desperately hip vulgarity. It feels like being trapped in P J O'Rourke's notebook.
The satire would have been more savage if it had succeeded in getting us to root for an amoral swine like Naylor. But strangely, it stacks the odds so starkly in his favour that he's like an action hero who manages to dodge the bullets of a hundred assassins, only to hit the target perfectly when returning fire.
His arch-enemy, Finistirre, is shown to be ineffectual and hypocritical, using private jets to fly between environmental fundraisers. The other characters are a collection of mouthpieces and stereotypes. Reitman has expanded the part of Naylor's son from the Christopher Buckley novel, from which the film is adapted. Here, he becomes the voice of his father's conscience. This 12-year-old wants to debate ethics, unlike any pre-pubescent boy I know.
High-profile casting is one way to disguise underwritten roles, and Robert Duvall provides the film's only high points as Naylor's boss, a tobacco bigwig known as "The Captain", who hands out suitcases of money as casually as other people pass round the breath mints.
Conventional writing and a lack of clear argument are what finally give the lie to Thank You for Smoking's pose of disaffected cool. There are signs that it fancies itself as satirical, but these aspirations are frustrated by an absence of fury. It's all smoke and no fire.
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