Merchants of Death


In this column last year we discussed the possibility of Lord Of War getting an Oscar for the best script. Viewers will recall the movie was a dark tell-all comedy about the arms industry. This year another Merchants Of Death movie is darker than a witch’s heart and twice as poisonous. Thank You For Smoking written by Christopher Buckley and worked on and directed by Jason Reitman is smart, devilish and is verbal wit from America as against visual wit, which is common. It should get an Oscar for Best Adaptation Of A Script. It won’t because we take ourselves too seriously and Thank You For Smoking doesn’t.

Says writer Kit Bowen, “Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, this film is about the art of the spin — and Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is one of the best spin doctors around. As a spokesman for Big Tobacco, he turns his mega-watt smile on the public and tells them all human beings have rights, even smokers. And if they want to light up, it is their prerogative. Naturally, Nick has many enemies, especially opportunistic senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H Macy). But in the end, Nick twirls around like a ballerina and comes out smelling like a rose, impressing not only the tobacco’s head honcho (Robert Duvall) but a Washington investigative reporter (Katie Holmes) doing a piece on Nick. Then something suddenly happens and Nick’s own reputation is on the line. With increased scrutiny on his son (Cameron Bright), Nick has to take a step back to examine what it is he’s doing. Enough to change his evil ways and shun tobacco forever? Oh hell no. There is no right or wrong in Smoking... just a few lessons learned.”

In Total Film, the review started like the film with a shocking moment where you didn’t know whether to laugh or not. “Meet Robin — a 15-year-old ‘cancer boy’, with shaven chemo-scalp, plonked on TV as a shock/sympathy figurehead for the anti-smoking league. ‘It’s in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking,’ claims pro-smoking lobbyist Naylor. The crowd hisses. ‘The anti-smoking people want Robin to die,” he continues. And the crowd pauses, edging towards his view. Sure, Naylor is the biggest killer (1,200 deaths a day) in his MOD (Merchants Of Death) squad of alcohol, firearms and tobacco pals, but with arguments like that, he’s proof that ‘when you argue correctly, you’re never wrong. Reitman is fighting absurdity with absurdity. He sees smoking, like boozing and driving, as just another everyday pastime that can kill but more often than not doesn’t — it’s just an easier political target. Smoking reminds us that this vilified industry is actually (shock!) run by average folk doing what they’re best at to pay the mortgage.”

Glenn Kenny of Premiere concludes, “With his outlandish story lines, taste for rococo names (Senator Ortolan Finistirre is one character here), and seemingly endless supply of very zingy one-liners, novelist Christopher Buckley is the closest thing to a Wodehouse the admittedly thin ranks of Beltway satirists will ever produce. His kind of wit, rare as it is in general, seems uncongenial to the current modes of film comedy, but writer-director Jason Reitman, here adapting Buckley’s 1994 lampoon of the tobacco lobby, understands that the author’s verbal slapstick and pyrotechnical plot turns are both smart and broad, and he and his cast, led by Aaron Eckhart at his most hilariously slick, just let rip. This is the kind of comedy that gives you two meaty underhanded jokes for every big obvious guffaw. It doesn’t add up to much more than that, but there’s no earthly reason why it ought to.”