I see Barbara Stanwyck in the lion's cage, arms flung wide in her evangelist's robes, gleaming, defiant, a miracle woman sold on her own con. At her back stand the tenements of her youth and the realization that anyone living in them must be a sucker. Immediately before her looms God's judgment, and a radio audience in the millions. She's betting on salvation now, with nothing left to wager but her own flesh: the most conspicuously experienced chorus-girl body in all of movie history. There's a huckster for you; there's a risk-taking American entrepreneur.
Long ago, when full-time show people cranked out the movies and Frank Capra hadn't gone all preachy himself, we got Stanwyck as our sexy bamboozler, out to gull the world lest she be gulled. Now we get Katie Holmes. A nice enough girl; she makes you want to ruffle her hair and give her a scratch behind the ears. How could she have been made the femme fatale in Thank You for Smoking, a film that otherwise casts its roles with the thoroughgoing precision, the literal-mindedness, of a rich kid filling gaps in his baseball card collection? See the low estate to which dishonest women have fallen! So sad is their decline in today's amateurish, anarcho-capitalist Hollywood that Holmes doesn't even get to play the liar-in-chief. She must yield in Thank You for Smoking to a slab of Mormon-bred masculinity: the precisely, predictably cast Aaron Eckhart.
His eyes like spacious skies, his hair an amber wave of grain, Eckhart first made himself known (and hated) as an incarnation of bullying, cocky Corporate America in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. Though Eckhart has demonstrated a creditable range since then (being macho and sensitive in Erin Brockovich, or macho and suicidally stupid in Nurse Betty), his bland perfection in filling a suit has now made him the no-brain choice to play Nick Naylor, the cheerfully dishonest tobacco-industry spokesman who is the narrator, satirical butt and ultimate hero of Thank You for Smoking.
"You know the guy who can date any woman? I'm him on crack," says Naylor in voiceover at the beginning, introducing himself with a characteristic sexual boast. Or is it a sexual metaphor? The occasion for this opening comment, far from being intimate, is a booking on a television talk show, where Naylor performs his favorite gyration--the truth-twist--in full view of an audience. So it goes throughout the film, as he directs his energy almost exclusively into the professional exertion of his jaw muscles. Even when Holmes gets him to stray, Naylor can't shut up about work.
If Thank You for Smoking were the sort of film in which you can learn things about the characters, including truths they don't know themselves, these details might have added up to something--a revelation, say, about the sexual economy of Mr. Corporate America. But as it's been written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on Christopher Buckley's comic novel, with the supervision of sixteen (count 'em) producers, co-producers, executive producers and associate producers, Thank You for Smoking scarcely seems able to recognize a character trait, let alone develop it. Witness the thin stuff turned out by our anarcho-capitalists, whose scenes (some of them captioned) serve mostly as illustrations for the voiceover, leaving you nothing to learn about the characters beyond what they say of themselves.
Or almost nothing. I count perhaps two scenes in Thank You for Smoking that have a function beyond exposition, the first of which brings Naylor together with a former Marlboro Man who is dying, bitterly and publicly, of lung cancer. (With the precision and predictability of a slide clicking into place at a lecture, Marlboro Man is played by Sam Elliott. In the same way, the tobacco cartel's courtly leader must be Robert Duvall; the slickest talent agent in Hollywood is Rob Lowe; Vermont's ill-dressed and self-righteous senator is William H. Macy; and Naylor's blustery boss is J.K. Simmons. At shortstop for the New York Yankees: Derek Jeter.) But now back to Naylor, who must get Marlboro Man to accept a pile of hush money, stacked in the traditional metal suitcase. In the film's best scene by far, Naylor accomplishes this daunting assignment by means of a classic con: He shows Marlboro Man how to use the suitcase in a public-relations stunt, getting him so caught up in this step-by-step demonstration that the mark is at last persuaded.
The tougher the challenge, the bigger the thrill. As Naylor says over and over, sparing our ears neither in voiceover nor on camera, he plays this game because he's good at it, and plays it for Big Tobacco because they test his skill. Since no tenements loom in his background (their very existence seems unimaginable in the Buckley-Naylor world), you might be tempted to take the liar at his word and think he's loyal only to his talent. But then, at around the eighty-five-minute mark, the film manages to put together its second dramatic scene, and Naylor shows that he does believe in a principle.