The film follows the wheeling and dealing of the wonderfully named Nick Naylor, the mouth-piece for fictional corporation National Tobacco, a man who shills poison for a living and is damn good at it. The question on which the film rests is, Could the best salesman in the world sell ice to Eskimos if the Eskimos know the ice was poisonous? The answer, apparently, is yes. At one point in the film Nick brags to his friends that he is so good at selling his product that it kills the equivalent of two jumbo jetliners full of people every day.
You're probably wondering how a movie with such a massive prick at its center could be funny. Well, the film does a very smart thing in casting Aaron Eckhart as the massive prick in question. In his hands, Naylor' lively intelligence and indomitable spirit don't come off cynical as much as all-American.
Smoking starts out with Naylor appearing on Joan Lunden' daytime talk show, sitting on stage with a liberal anti-smoking advocate and a young cancer patient. Any child of the 90s will recognize this as an Indiana Jones opening-starting the film with the protagonist in very dangerous territory. Over an uproarious five minutes, Nick manages to turn the studio audience, the cancer patient and even the movie theater audience against the liberal activist by arguing that if, God forbid, the cancer patient dies, the anti-smoking advocate will be pleased to gain a statistic whereas Nick will be devastated to lose a loyal customer. In a lesser film, the laugh would come from the fact that the studio audience is so easily duped, but Reitman smartly plays the scene straight, placing the laugh on the fact that Nick is so damn persuasive.
From here we move on to an even tougher scenario: career day at his son' school. As Nick enters, his son whispers, "Please don't ruin my life." The comedic premise in this scene is that Nick tackles the kids' questions with the same intensity and seriousness that he did on the talk show, asking one little girl for scientific evidence to back up her mother' claim that cigarettes kill, and criticizing the children' blind faith in everything that science tells them. Naylor isn't a man who is forced to do an evil job, he is a man who loves his job so much that he can't help but throw himself headfirst into it at every opportunity he gets.
Every time the film threatens to drag due to the repetition of its premise, Reitman manages to mine the script for laughs. There is the motif of the "MOD Squad" (Merchant of Death Squad) lunch meetings in which Nick meets with an alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and a firearms lobbyist (David Koechner, or the only guy who sucked in Anchorman) to compare enthusiastic notes on the thankless jobs of shilling products that kill people. At one point, Nick argues that cigarettes are harder to sell than alcohol because "they make you bald before you die."
The funniest scene in the film comes about halfway through as Nick and his son visit a movie agency to work on his plan to put cigarettes back in the hands of movie stars. (Interesting note: we never once see an actor in Thank You For Smoking smoke a cigarette.) It is becoming increasingly clear that Hollywood agent is the role that Hollywood is able to have the most fun with. Rob Lowe stars as the agent in question, a man who is obsessed with Asian culture and only sleeps on Sundays. However, as much as I hate to admit it, the sequence is really stolen by The OC' Adam Brody, who plays a hyper-caffeinated assistant to the agent. He is a perfect counterpoint to Nick' enthusiastic merchant of evil, only he seems to believe in whatever it is he's selling. Standing next to a pond, he points to a gold fish, saying, "See that one right there? It cost $45,000. It almost makes you feel bad to eat sushi. But I guess you sort of have to, right?"
This pitch perfect depiction of Hollywood nonsense is just one of the many moments of brilliance that make the film worth your time. You don't have to see it out in the theaters, there' nothing that won't translate well to a DVD viewing. But if you have the time and the money, you won't find a better way to spend an afternoon at the movies.