A few days ago, I was browsing the film literature section of my university’s library when a title caught my eye: Thank You For Smoking: The Shooting Script. I had heard of the movie offhand when it came out several years ago, but I had never thought that it would be a movie that I would see, or a screenplay that I would read. Certainly it seemed to have flown under the radar as far as I was concerned. But because it was sitting in front of me now, and because I’d heard that it was a comedy, I decided to give it a shot.
Thank You For Smoking is the debut feature screenplay of Jason Reitman, an award-winning writer of short films. As the title suggests, this is a screenplay with a twist. It tells the story of Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry; essentially, he’s paid to convince the public that tobacco is less harmful (and more sexy) than they think, or at least that people should be allowed to choose whether to smoke or not. The challenges that Nick faces include a senator who wants to put a skull and crossbones label on cigarette cartons, a wily female reporter who’s not above sleeping with Nick to get the dirt she needs, and even vigilantes who want to kill him as reparation for his killing of two jumbo-jet-loads of people a day. In between these reversals, Nick shares his woes with his two best friends–representatives of alcohol and firearms interest groups–and tries to build a positive relationship with his twelve-year-old son, Joey, even if his divorce means that the only way that he can see him is to take him along on a trip to pay hush money to a lung cancer patient. When asked if he has any qualms about what he does, Nick simply responds, “Everyone’s got to pay the mortgage.”
The movie is rated R due to a scattering of F-bombs and a brief sex scene, neither of which are integral parts of the movie. However, it doesn’t matter because Reitman knew that, with or without these elements, no parent would be thrilled about their 13-year-old seeing a movie that gets its audience to root for a cigarette lobbyist. Reitman recognizes that his audience is limited and, rather than try to change that fact, he embraces it. This unapologetic stance parallels that of Nick Naylor, who tells the audience up front that he “earn[s] a living fronting an organization that kills one thousand two hundred human beings a day.”
While this screenplay has an obvious message about the corruption involved in interest lobbying–the presentation of the cancer patient’s hush money as bundles of cash in a drug-dealer-style suitcase really drove the point home–it was hard to have any serious thoughts about the ills of society while reading a screenplay that’s as much fun as this one. Reitman is an energetic writer with a sense of humor that keeps the audience on their toes. He weaves together moments and scenes that offer sharp insight into the funny side of a not-so-funny profession; even the sex scene is punctuated by Nick’s voiceover comments about the “bad boy in a suit” edge that his job gives him. The screenplay also takes a few interesting philosophical turns, most notably a scene in which Nick explains his work to his son by comparing the cigarette argument to an argument over which flavor of ice cream is the best.
However, the screenplay’s episodic, scene-over-plot structure is precisely why it’s not for everyone. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly where Reitman was going with all of this. Was Nick going to learn some kind of lesson? Was he going to change at all? I won’t reveal how the screenplay ends, but it wasn’t until I finished reading that I realized that the ending wasn’t so important after all. It was the twists and turns in Nick’s story, not their end result, that had made the screenplay so entertaining. So if you’re the type of person who likes a story with a solid ending that ties the story together, don’t expect to find it in this screenplay.
Ultimately, however, the screenplay’s structure was just another part of the unorthodox bent that made me respect it so much. In today’s world of least-common-denominator marketing, it’s rare to find a writer who’s willing to break with convention in order to create a stellar screenplay that may not appeal to every Joe Sixpack in America. Reitman is just such a writer, and Thank You For Smoking is just such a screenplay. Two thumbs up.