Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, "The Core") is a Washington lobbyist for the tobacco industry, wheeling and dealing his way all over the country trying to keep the debate about cigarettes alive and kicking as he climbs his way up the corporate ladder. One day, Nick is left in charge of his son (vacant Cameron Bright, "Ultraviolet") while he runs some important and ultimately soul-searching errands, leaving him wide open to the advances and treachery of a comely young reporter (Katie Holmes) who wants to do a cover story on him.
There's a fine line between a film that wants to make you laugh and a film that assumes it will. "Thank You for Smoking" (IMDb listing) is strictly in the latter category. The picture is a worthless satire on all things obvious, from liberal congressmen in Birkenstocks (William H. Macy) to vapid Hollywood power players (Rob Lowe) who name their agency E.G.O. Yet, the film (based on a novel) is delivered with a rather smug assurance that the targets it explores are a special color of gold, and the whole package is guaranteed can't-miss material.
Written and directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, further proving nepotism in Hollywood isn't a good thing), "Smoking" is expectedly flashy and quick on its feet. Here Reitman is chasing black comedy, and he likes to play the humor fairly broad and the satire as bright as a Phoenix afternoon. I found it incredibly challenging to get excited about Reitman's vision, especially when his satiric targets are exceedingly stale, toothless, and some way too cutesy for a film that looks to draw blood. Unless they hire Bruce McCulloch to dress up and sit in a wheelchair, a joke involving a "Cancer Boy" is a waste of time.
"Smoking" goes after the legacy of a cancer-riddled Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot), gives Nick aggressively cartoony sidekicks in lobbyists for alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (David Koechner), and creates a scene in which Nick is quite literally saved by his smoking habit. Again, Reitman handles none of this with confidence; he so concerned with selling the dismal, softball jokes that he neglects richer opportunities for grander comedic movements, thus robbing the film of effectiveness. "Smoking" is all glossy surface, trying to prod the audience like cattle into acknowledging the gags and to experience a false sense of intelligence; however, in this film, more competence is shown by bearing silent witness to all of the jokes dying embarrassingly in front of your eyes.
Whether or not the viewer is responsive to the humor, there's an effort made throughout the film by Reitman to be conscientious of Nick's ruthless ways. So what's the point of abruptly softening Nick's character? Why is there a scene late in the game that has him going one step too far with his debate tactics, when the rest of the film is arranged to prove that "too far" isn't in Nick's vocabulary? Admittedly, I haven't scoped the source material, but Reitman's script does not support such a weakly realized cop-out like the one found here. He tries to patch up the hole with some more bitter satiric sauce, but the damage is done, leaving whatever thought-provoking burn Reitman wanted to give the viewer in "Thank You for Smoking" about as effective as an itchy sweater.
Filmfodder Grade: D