Jason Reitman’s debut film as a writer/director is savagely funny. Although Reitman simplifies Christopher Buckley’s novel in his adaptation, the plot is still gleefully subversive.
The story focuses on super-confident Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. He continues to insist their studies have found no links between smoking and lung cancer. A sexy journalist named Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) interviews him, and the two begin a passionate affair.
The number of smokers continues to drop, and Nick’s apoplectic boss, BR (J. K. Simmons) insists this trend must reverse. Nick decides product placement of cigarettes in movies is a solution. BR sends Nick to Hollywood for a meeting with producer Jeff (Rob Lowe); Nick convinces his ex-wife to let their son Joey (Cameron Bright) come along.
Joey gets to see his dad in action when Nick performs a side errand for BR. Lorne Lutch (Sam Eliot), once the Marlboro Man, has been diagnosed with cancer and now speaks against cigarettes. Nick delivers a briefcase full of cash and convinces Lorne to take it in return for silence. Father and son discuss the importance of arguing skillfully.
Back in Washington, Nick has a televised debate with Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy). Finistirre wants to put a scull and crossbones POISON symbol on cigarette packages. Nick receives a threatening phone call during the debate. Shortly after, men kidnap him and plaster his body with nicotine patches. Ironically, Nick’s previous tobacco use allows him to withstand the high dose of nicotine. Doctors tell him that now he will not survive any kind of smoke, even secondhand.
There is great sympathy for Nick until Heather’s article is published. He told her many things off the record, and she included them all. The public sympathy evaporates, and a furious BR fires him.
One person- Joey- still believes in Nick and convinces him to make one last attempt to get back into his game. I am not going to reveal the ending, except to say this is not Frank Capra.
Aaron Eckhart is wonderful as the fast-talking, shameless Nick. His scenes with Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), fellow lobbyists he meets for lunch, are beautifully timed. Katie Holmes as the ambitious Heather, Cameron Bright as the Nick in training, and Kim Dickens as Nick’s savvy ex, Jill, all do good work here.
I will end with examples of the film’s whip-smart dialogue:
Jeff: [in his office] Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.
Nick: Cigarettes in space?
Jeff: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
Joey: Dad, why is American government the best government?
Nick: [sitting on couch in his apartment] Because of our endless appeal process.
Theme: High Concept Satire
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