Jason Reitman, 2005, US, 92 mins
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Katie Holmes
Review by Carol Allen
As a member of that fast-shrinking, persecuted minority known as smokers, I am inevitably drawn to a film whose title promises a bit of support! Support in the film, however, comes not for the act of smoking as such, but for the concept of thinking for yourself and making your own mind up,rather than following the herd.
The main character is Nick Naylor (Eckhart), a lobbyist for the fictional Academy of Tobacco Studies. We first see him in action doing his silver-tongued spin-doctoring on a chat show. Nick is a charming, apparently amoral character with his own independent moral code and a broken marriage. He still, however, retains a sparky relationship with his son (Bright), an old head on young shoulders, who, more understandably than with most teenagers, finds his father's profession a deep embarrassment. Why does Nick do the job he does? The money's good but mainly, as he confesses disarmingly, "because I'm good at it."
Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, Reitman's adaptation is strong on ironic and satirically witty dialogue, with a good sense of style. Particularly effective is Nick's relationship with his fellow members of
the self-termed MOD - Merchants of Death - Polly Bailey (Bello) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), who are lobbyists representing the interests of the alcohol and gun trades respectively. The regular meetings of this troika in their favourite restaurant act as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the issues of the film, though Reitman rather spoils this effect when he takes them out of that closed environment. As Nick goes on a P.R. offensive against anti-tobacco zealot Senator Finistirre (the always excellent William H. Macy), we meet a number of colourful characters even more ruthless than Nick is. There's his tobacco baron boss (Robert Duvall), Rob Lowe as an enthusiastic product placement agent eager to get tobacco products back on the Hollywood screen and investigative reporter Tiffany (Holmes), who steamily seduces him. Although best known as the woman Tom Cruise is so noisily in love with, Holmes shows herself here as a sharp and sexy actress in her own right.
It is, however, Eckhart's film - he's in virtually every scene - and he holds it all together with charismatic confidence. The movie falls apart slightly towards the end, when Nick is subject to nicotine poisoning at the hands of an anti-tobacco activist, and most importantly in his final confrontation with Finistirre, where what should be his climactic speech in defence of tobacco and personal choice just isn't strong enough. And as the dangers of smoking are acknowledged throughout the film, we really don't need yet another preachy anti-smoking message to round it off. Maybe that was the only way they could get the film made in the self-censorship atmosphere of Hollywood. That and the fact that, despite its title and our being told that Nick is a chain smoker, nobody in the entire film smokes a single cigarette.
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