Jason Reitman has a new movie out this week, reportedly an effort that finds him back on track following a couple widely derided cinematic disasters. When I was first applying my resharpened film critic pencil, I wrote about Reitman’s feature debut as a director. I was clearly still finding my way (like Reitman at the time, I suppose), as evidenced by the oddly truncated quality of this piece. It feels like it’s missing at least one whole paragraph, but this is what I put out into the world at the time. Also, please do note this was published in 2006 and adjust the “Ten years ago” opener accordingly.
Ten years ago, Thank You For Smoking might have been a helluva movie.
When Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel first saw the light of bookstore new release tables back in 1994, the story of a tobacco company spin doctor had real bite. For example, Buckley’s expert recreations of Larry King appearances and press conferences on the printed page snapped with freshness, the precise manipulation of these supposed extemporaneous events revealed through the simple accuracy of Buckley’s prose. When the fictional version feels so real, it makes it easier to start spotting the fiction routinely infused into the reality. The book felt sly and even a little daring as it exposed the insidious media messaging perpetrated by America’s deadliest industry. Years later, not only do the cigarette companies feel more toothless than the scruffy fellows watching the river in Deliverance, but our cultural cynicism has reached such nosebleed-inducing heights that each new instance of callous disregard for intellectual honesty is greeted with an amused shrug as we return to the most pressing matter of texting in our vote for Katherine McPhee. Do Buckley’s once potent points about political and social decisions being based on rearranged truths carry any resonance anymore?
Even without the intervening decade-plus robbing the story of its timeliness — and, arguably, relevance — first-time feature director Jason Reitman has rolled out a pretty shaky product here. To his credit, he seems to have toiled in the filmmaking trenches for a while, making a string of shorts instead of cashing in on his father’s well-established place in the movie biz. Then again, when your pop’s last three directorial efforts are Evolution, Six Days, Seven Nights, and Father’s Day, nepotism may actually become a hindrance. Mean jokes aside, all those short films haven’t necessarily helped Jason Reitman achieve the sort of command that helps hold a 90-minute film together. In particular, most of the performances suffer from an off-putting unevenness, as if Reitman was having the actors try individual moments several different ways (“Now a little broader! Now really draw it back!”) and pulled all his favorite takes without bothering to shape unified performances. The only scenes that work with any consistency are those with the least amount of range or plotline burden, specifically those involving the restaurant confabs between the self-anointed Merchants of Death, lobbyists for the most detested industries in America.
That leaves a good cast to go to waste, although it looks more and more like Aaron Eckhart is better served by supporting roles than leads, one corrosively brilliant turn in a Labutian poison layer cake notwithstanding. And it’s worth noting that Katie Holmes is about as convincing as a seductress reporter as she was as a crusading young Assistant District Attorney, making two straight films that she’s stopped dead through sheer force of miscasting. She’s also reached the point where the psychotic swirl of her real life is at such a constant crescendo that it’s a distraction ever time she pops up onscreen.