Bright Lights Film Journal

How Slick Is Too Slick? Jason Reitman’s <em>Thank You for Smoking</em>

A movie only a preppie could love

A good preppie cares about three things: good Scotch, good pussy, and a good school for his son. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) achieves this trifecta with ease in writer/director Jason Reitman’s thin but funny (funny but thin?) Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel of the same name.

Nick Naylor is a black belt karate warrior in the land of talking heads, Washington, DC, working to protect the $48 billion tobacco industry from the depredations of sandal-wearing sociopaths like Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), dickless morons incapable of pleasure themselves whose only release comes from denying it to others.

The basic gag of Buckley’s book, and of Reitman’s film, is that 90 percent of the lobbyists and politicos in DC could change sides without breaking stride. Inside the Beltway, it’s all about tactics. Ideas, not to mention ideals, only slow you down.1 The fancy titles on the door — Tobacco Research Institute, American Lung Association — get all the press, but in the end you’re just a guy with a spear, looking for someone to stick.

Nick likes to hang with fellow spear-carriers Polly Bailey (Marie Bello), rep for the booze industry, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), who handles firearms. Together they swap gallows humor and bitch about the goddamn media, which absolutely refuses to accept that death can be a good thing. But the self-pity is all jive. They’re glad they’re bad. The worse the cause, the fatter the paycheck. Besides, there’s just no feeling like walking into a television studio or a congressional hearing and knowing that everyone’s a chump but you.

Naturally, life isn’t perfect for Nick. He’s paying alimony to his pain-in-the-ass ex-wife Sue (Mary Jo Smith), who’s shacked up with some bearded nerd on Nick’s dime, a geek who’s probably teaching Nick’s son Joey (Cameron Bright) that second-hand cigarette smoke gives seal pups skin cancer. Fortunately for Nick, he gets some serious face time with the kid and teaches him that it’s all about winning. Right and wrong, truth and error, who gives a shit! An audience wants excitement, drama, a contest! Give them a contest, on your turf, with your rules, and you’re bound to be a winner. Just win, baby! Knee in the crotch, finger in the eye, it’s all good! Always be a winner, son. The pussy’s so much better. And so are the tee-times!

For those of us with souls, the message falls a little flat. Buckley/Reitman further weaken the impact of their tale by loading the dice in Nick’s favor. He always gets the last word. The forces of “good” stumble and sweat, while Nick is as smooth and cool as a summer breeze.2 One-sided satire? It’s a bit like shooting a sitting bird.3


The actual tobacco wars were loaded with ten thousand times the ironies and vanities contained in Thank You for Smoking. Lying corporate executives were pitted against trial lawyers hungry for cash, state attorney generals hungry for fame (and cash), and hyperventilating liberals hungry for a cause that would justify their egos. The resulting “settlement,” an unending mass of continuing litigation, surely makes the lawyers on both sides happy, but no one else.

  1. Both liberal and conservative reminiscences of life in the Big D include frequent encomia to the other side. They’re so organized! If only we could do that! []
  2. For example, in his showdown with Sen. Finistirre, Nick points out that Vermont cheddar cheese contains cholesterol, which can kill you just as dead as nicotine. Yeah, but cholesterol is a necessary part of any healthy diet, whereas nicotine — well, you don’t really need to coat the inside of your lungs with tar, soot, and other residues of combustion forty times a day, do you? []
  3. One thoroughly absurd touch in the film is that none of the tobacco folks are ever shown smoking! We’re told, half way through, that Nick is a smoker, but we never see him light up. Why not? Well, it might make him look unsympathetic. []