Brimming with affable actors and a cool, refreshing menthol topicality, Thank You for Smoking, which I caught last night in Union Square, is a wry, decently amusing satire — one that’s not much for side-splitting bellylaughs but good for a consistent chuckle throughout. Very few scenes go by without a few snappy lines or clever sight gag, and the film is all the more endearing for its understatement — like cigarettes, a lot of these jokes almost sell themselves. Still, I haven’t read Chris Buckley’s book, but I can’t escape the suspicion that a devastatingly funny movie could’ve been made from this source material if the filmmakers had just gone for it, um, unfiltered. More often than not, the film seems to want to be liked, when what it really needed was a jolt of the same type of dark misanthropy that propelled last year’s Lord of War (i.e. Thank You for Shooting.) I’d say it’s worth seeing, and I was definitely smiling through most of the film. But, at crucial times, and particularly in the second half, Thank You for Smoking feels too lo-tar and antiseptic for its own good. (Oh, and sorry, Tom Cruise conspiracy theorists: Katie Holmes’ brief sex scenes are still here.)
For those who haven’t seen the preview, the film follows the exploits of uber-charismatic cigarette lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, doing a friendlier variation on his In the Company of Men turn), a guy who basically has the heart of The X-Files‘s Cigarette Smoking Man in the body of Mr. Smith (Think Capra, not Matrix.) Sent on various charm offensives by his immediate boss (J.K. Simmons, pitch-perfect) and the head office in Winston-Salem (Robert Duvall, doing his R.E. Lee schtick again), Naylor must flatter, cajole, bluff, and wheedle his way past a number of moderately funny archetypes, including a Birkenstock-clad senator from Vermont (William H. Macy), a ruthless Orientophile Hollywood exec (Rob Lowe), their various flunkies (Todd Louiso, Adam Brody), and a thoroughly disgruntled Marlboro Man now suffering from lung cancer (Sam Elliott). Along for the ride on this tobacco tour is Naylor’s kid (Cameron Bright) — on loan from the ex-wife (Deadwood‘s Kim Dickens) and her new doctor boyfriend,(whose studiously scruffy beard is one of the many funny details herein) — and Nick spends much of the film trying to inculcate his son in the ways of activism for the amoral. (I have to admit, it’s hard to watch these scenes and not think of the author and his own dad, the venerable William F. Buckley, Jr..)
Like I said, for the most part Thank You for Smoking is a jaunty and amusing two hours, with enough clever moments to keep the general atmosphere lively and droll. Still, at times, it’s hard not to feel that there are opportunities missed here, particularly when the movie loses its step. (The climax, in which Naylor testifies before Congress, is basically a non-starter.) For one, the film occasionally jumps to voiceover (a la Lord of War), without ever really committing to it, and so it ends up feeling like lazy writing. And some potentially funny jokes just seem clumsily telegraphed — to take one small example, when Naylor’s gun lobbyist friend (Anchorman‘s David Koechner) has trouble with a security gate. Speaking of Koechner, he and Eckhart share several scenes with alcohol lobbyst Maria Bello (The Cooler, A History of Violence) as the “MOD” (“Merchants of Destruction”) Squad, which feel like they should be the centerpiece of the film. But Bello (an actress I’ll admit to rooting for) is almost criminally underused here — her best gag ends up being her quintessentially DC power-suit.
Not to miss the carton for the smokes, Thank You is a smart comedy that’s aimed at adults and funny enough to recommend…but I can’t help thinking it needed to be more rough around the edges, more stogie and less nicotine patch.