Within seconds after the opening credits of “Thank You For Smoking“–the new film directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, with an all-star cast including Robert Duvall and William H. Macey–the film’s central character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a successful pro-tobacco lobbyist, explains in voice over narration: “I front an organization that kills 1,200 people per day.”
As the film progresses, Nick’s blunt self-awareness and string of self-associations and rationalizations about his job are never-ending. His alliances include membership in a group he refers to as “The M.O.D. Squad”–M.O.D. standing for Merchants of Death–which meets regularly for dinner and drinks. The group has a membership of three, and Nick tosses off the group’s name with a chuckle, as if it’s quaint. Nick’s role is as the “Merchant” representing Big Tobacco, while his two fellow “Merchants” represent the firearms lobby and the alcohol lobby, respectively.
In one of Nick’s stand-out moments, which is touching and reflective (insert sarcasm here), his son asks him about his job and whether or not any average Joe is qualified to be a tobacco lobbyist. Daddy responds to his son’s question with complete sincerity and a straight face: “No. It requires a certain moral flexibility.” “Moral flexibility,” of course, is one way of describing life as the “front man” for a product that kills 1,200 people a day.
And yet, throughout the film, Nick Naylor somehow retains a kernel of sympathy from the viewer.
How does he do it? Perhaps it’s the father-son relationship that gives Nick’s character its redeeming quality, despite all the moral problems I have with his character and job. His dedication to being the best dad he can possibly be is evident throughout. He approaches fatherhood with all the tenderness, love, and effort one can hope for from a weekend-divorced dad, albeit in a rather offbeat, unusual manner (since most dads are not sincerely trying to instill disturbingly distorted pro-tobacco, lobbyist-tactic moral lessons into their kids). The father-son dimension in this narrative is amazingly well-developed and crafted, making the viewer care and empathize in a way that reminded me of Tony Soprano’s character: He is a man who wants desperately to be a good family man, yet who commits all these reprehensible acts.
Or maybe it’s simply the comedy factor, since this film offers many laugh-out-loud moments, not least of which includes Nick’s son’s attendance at a school called “St. Euthanasius.” Rob Lowe puts in a few hilarious moments as a ridiculous Hollywood executive who dons a kimono when he’s alone. The humor overall is certainly dark, but not so dark that you feel disturbed leaving the film. Which perhaps is the biggest part of the problem: Nick Naylor as a character manages to charm–even seduce–the audience, with his regular-guy, dedicated-dad persona, in such a way that you almost want to forgive him. You almost want him to win–despite his horrific allegiances. Which means that somehow if you end up with the least bit of sympathy for Nick, you are de facto sympathizing with Big Tobacco and the firearms and alcohol lobbies by default.
It’s amazing what a persuasive character can do. Or is it just that there’s a little redemption in everyone–no matter what they stand for?