Nick Naylor is a handsome, smooth-talking tobacco lobbyist and the vice-president of a tobacco lobby called the "Academy of Tobacco Studies", which for 15 years has been "researching" the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. They claim that their research—funded primarily by tobacco companies—has found no definitive evidence of any linkage. Naylor's job consists mainly of reporting the questionable research of the "Academy" to the public and defending Big Tobacco on television programs by questioning opposing health claims and advocating personal choice. Naylor and his friends, firearm lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss and alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey, meet every week and jokingly call themselves the "Merchants of Death" or "The MOD Squad".
As anti-tobacco campaigns mount and numbers of young smokers decline, Naylor suggests that product placement of cigarettes could once again boost cigarette sales. Naylor's boss, BR, sends Naylor to Los Angeles to bargain for cigarette placement in upcoming movies. Naylor takes along his young son Joey in hopes of bonding with him. The next day, Naylor is sent to meet with Lorne Lutch, the cancer-stricken man who once played the Marlboro Man in cigarette ads and is now campaigning against cigarettes. As his son watches, Naylor successfully offers Lutch a suitcase of money for his silence. During the drive back, Nick and Joey discuss the beauty of argument.
Senator Finistirre, one of Naylor's most vehement critics, is the promoter of a bill to add a skull and crossbones POISON warning to cigarette packaging. During a televised debate with Finistirre, Naylor receives a death threat from a caller. Despite the threat, Naylor still plans to appear before a U.S. Senate committee to fight Finistirre's bill. Naylor is then kidnapped and covered in nicotine patches. Awakening in a hospital, he learns that the very high nicotine tolerance level resulting from his smoking has saved him from death by nicotine poisoning, but now he is hypersensitive to nicotine and can never smoke again.
Meanwhile, Naylor has been seduced by a young reporter named Heather Holloway. During their steamy fling, the besotted Naylor tells Holloway all about his life and career—information that she happily publishes in an exposé that appears just after the kidnapping. Her article relentlessly bashes Naylor and his work, exposing Lutch's bribe, the product-placement scheme, and the MOD squad. It accuses Naylor of training his son Joey to follow his amoral example. All public sympathy due to Naylor's kidnapping evaporates, and Naylor is fired by BR.
Naylor falls into depression until Joey helps him recall the integrity in his job of defending corporations that almost no one feels deserve a defense. Rejuvenated, Naylor tells the press about his affair with Holloway and promises to clear the names of everyone mentioned in her article. He also declares that he will still appear before the Senate committee. At the hearing, Naylor admits to the dangers of smoking but argues that public awareness is already high enough without extra warnings. He emphasizes consumer choice and responsibility and, to the dismay of Senator Finistirre, claims that if tobacco companies are guilty of tobacco-related deaths, then perhaps Finistirre's state of Vermont, as a major cheese producer, is likewise guilty of cholesterol-related deaths.
BR congratulates Naylor on the speech and offers him his old job but Naylor has a change of heart. Seeing Big Tobacco settling claims of liability, Naylor remarks that he has left just in time. He also mentions Heather was humiliated upon being terminated by the paper for her article and is working as a weather reporter on a local news station. Naylor supports his son's newfound interest in debating and opens a private lobbying firm. The MOD squad continues to meet with new members that represent the fast-food, oil, and biohazard industries. As he consults cellphone industry representatives concerned about claims that cellphones cause brain cancer, he narrates: "Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent."Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, spokesmen for the Academy of Tobacco Studies
Cameron Bright as Joey Naylor, Nick's son
Katie Holmes as Heather Holloway, a reporter for the Washington Probe
Maria Bello as Polly Bailey, a spokeswoman for the alcohol industry.
David Koechner as Bobby Jay Bliss, a spokesman for S.A.F.E.T.Y (Society for the Advancement of Firearms and Effective Training for Youth).
William H. Macy as Senator Ortolan Finistirre
Robert Duvall as the Captain, founder of The Academy for Tobacco Studies
J. K. Simmons as "BR", Nick's boss
Marianne Muellerleile as Joey's school teacher
Kim Dickens as Jill Naylor, Nick's ex-wife
Rob Lowe as Jeff Megall, a Hollywood super-agent
Adam Brody as Jack, Jeff Megell's assistant
Sam Elliott as Lorne Lutch, the original Marlboro Man
Todd Louiso as Ron Goode
Dennis Miller as Himself
Director Jason Reitman asked many of his prospective actors and actresses to be in the film by writing each of them a personal letter. Every one of his first choices accepted his or her part and most thanked Reitman for his letter. Reitman was also able to persuade Eckhart, Holmes, Macy, and Lowe to sign on to the film with minimum pay.
Mel Gibson's Icon Productions bought the rights to Buckley's novel prior to its release. Initially, Gibson saw himself as starring as Nick Naylor in the adaptation. However, due to the satiric nature of the book, the studio lacked a way to film it and the project lacked a usable script. Reitman became interested in heading an adaptation after reading the book, and independently wrote a draft for Icon executives after he discovered they owned the rights to the film. Reitman saw himself as a comic writer with a voice similar to Buckley's, and consciously attempted to maintain the satiric flavor of the book for his draft. The script was received favorably by Icon, and Gibson called Reitman to tell him how much he loved it. But over the next three years, the project languished due to a lack of financing and big studio interest, as most studios wanted Reitman to rewrite his script to include a more anti-smoking and uplifting ending. According to Reitman, studios wanted Naylor to have a change of heart by the film's end and repent for his past.
It was only after meeting David O. Sacks, who had made his fortune as the former COO of the Internet payment company PayPal, that Reitman found a financier for his script. A first-time producer, Sacks spent over a year trying to acquire the rights to the film from Icon. He financed most of the film's $8.5 million budget and let Reitman keep most of his original draft. The project marked Reitman's first feature-length film as a director, though he previously directed short films and commercials and had worked on the set of his father, director Ivan Reitman.
During the filming, Reitman made the conscious decision not to show any actual smoking of cigarettes. The only scenes that include smoking are older films the characters watch, such as when John Wayne lights up in Sands of Iwo Jima.
Before the film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, internet rumors claimed that an extended nudity scene between Eckhart and Holmes had been cut down due to pressure from Holmes' husband, Tom Cruise. Reitman and executives denied that such a scene had ever existed but welcomed the publicity it garnered for the film. Reitman later said that "Half the questions that I've been getting are thoughtful questions about the moral of lobbying and how does satire work. And the rest is just, 'Is there actually any nude footage out there?'"
Controversy also erupted after the film was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Thank You for Smoking was met with tremendous popular reception and afterward disputed claims emerged as to who had signed a distribution deal with Sacks. Fox Searchlight Pictures and Paramount Classics both issued competing press releases claiming that they had secured rights for the film's distribution. Sacks later claimed that he never reached a firm deal with Paramount, and noted that Fox Searchlight had offered $7 million for distribution, while Paramount Classics offered $6.7 million. Allegedly, Sacks called Paramount at 1:15 a.m. saying he was uncomfortable with their initial deal. Ruth Vitale, co-president of Paramount Classics said "He can't resell the film" and noted "I can only think that because of his naiveté and inexperience he would do this."
The film received mostly positive reviews from film critics. Film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 86% of 174 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.3 out of 10. The site's general consensus is that "Delightfully unscrupulous characters and searing cynicism prick all sides of the anti-smoking issue with hilarity and intelligence." Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from film critics, has a rating score of 71 based on 36 reviews. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone describing it as "acutely hilarious" and gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars. USA Today film critic Claudia Puig called it a "razor-sharp satire" that was "the wittiest dark comedy of the year thus far. It has appeal to all sides of the political spectrum." She praised the film for a "quirky and intelligent rarity that elicits wry smiles and hearty laughs alike" and compared it in tone to Election (1999). Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times also favorably reviewed the film, calling it a "very smart and funny movie" that had been "shrewdly" adapted to film from novel.
Thank You for Smoking initially opened at the box office in the U.S. as a limited release in just five theaters, and grossed $262,923 in its debut weekend for an average of $52,584 per theater, making it one of the top 100 average gross per theater films of all time. The film was later released in 1,015 theaters across the U.S. on April 14, 2006, and has gone on to gross $24,793,509 domestically and $14,529,518 outside the country, for a total of $39,323,027 worldwide. The highest it ever rated at the North American box office was #8 on the weekend of its wide release. Although the film's box office performance was excellent for Reitman's directorial debut, it paled in comparison with his next two films, Juno and Up in the Air, both of which went on to make well over $150,000,000 worldwide.
The main contention most critics had with the film was its lack of continuity. Karina Longworth of Cinematical notes "Thank You for Smoking has a vague emotional arc, but narratively it plays out like a constellation of sitcom sketches, connected by the most tenuous threads of character evolution", while Empire observes "the problem's not so much with the movie's aim, as with the number of targets it's aiming at." Other reviewers criticized the film's overacting. Manhola Dargis of The New York Times notes "although he [Reitman] steers his cast through its paces with facility, he tends to oversell jokes that were already plenty loud in the book." Other comments come from The Hollywood Reporter: "While often entertaining, the film keeps hitting the same comic notes", and Salon: "The actors here are entertaining enough to watch, even if they sometimes seem to be taking their mission (whatever they think it is) a bit too seriously."
While Thank You for Smoking the book was praised as a sharp criticism of both anti-smoking lobbyists and the tobacco industry, the film has received more mixed reviews on its satirical content. Steve Palopoli of Metro Silicon Valley writes that "no matter" how much the hype machine might hard-sell the idea that the movie 'skewers both sides of the issue', "any child old enough to recognize Joe Camel can tell that underneath the sarcastic joking, this is a bitterly anti-smoking film." Palopoli goes on to say "the supposed case against the anti-smoking lobby has been reduced mostly to some limp jokes at the expense of William H. Macy's senator character, who is fervently against the tobacco lobby". Many felt the film's relatively sappy ending negated the slicker, darker tone of the book. The Washington Post's Desson Thomson thought that "as written and directed by Jason Reitman, 'Smoking' is filtered too heavily with moral redemption."
Reitman has maintained his purpose was to match the tone and satirical message of the book as closely as possible. "What I wanted people to think about was political correctness. I wanted them to think about ideas of personal responsibility and personal choice. I think cigarettes are a wonderful location for that discussion because cigarettes are something we know all the answers to", he posits. "I wanted to look into this idea of why we feel the need to tell each other how to live and why we can't take personal responsibility for our own actions when we fall ill from things that we know are dangerous." Stephanie Zacharek of Salon agrees with Reitman; "Despite its title, the movie doesn't come packaged with a strong anti-smoking message, because it doesn't need to: Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, including people who continue to do it."
There is no point during the film at which any of the characters smoke. Dargis of The New York Times unwittingly states, "Thank You for Smoking is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes mild violence, discreet sex and, of course, countless cigarettes." In the film, even Robert Duvall's filtered cigarette maverick "The Captain" is shown repeatedly drinking mint juleps rather than smoking cigarettes. Some critics argue that Reitman's reluctance to show the characters smoking is further confirmation of the film's anti-smoking stance. Reitman has issued statements disagreeing with this view. He said in an interview that "While it's not anti-smoking, it's very important people don't think that this is a pro-smoking movie. It's about freedom of choice." Buckley said about the decision to omit smoking that "[I]t was very deliberate, and I think rather cool."
The tobacco industry itself has been reluctant to take any sides or comment on the film. When New York Times reporter Michael Jankowsky contacted an Altria publicist about the tobacco giant's reaction, she "hesitated to respond, insisting that the film looks dated and poorly reflects the industry with depictions of tobacco executives as highly paid sleazeballs." Though Thank You for Smoking pokes fun at the industry, the novel it was adapted from is a much harsher critic of tobacco lobbyists, and the major tobacco companies have mostly kept quiet on the issue.
Thank You for Smoking did not receive a wide variety of nominations from the major award circuits; however, it did garner two Golden Globe nominations in its year for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actor in the same film genre for Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Nick Naylor. The Broadcast Film Association recognized Cameron Bright for his performance as Joey with a nomination for Best Young Actor, and also gave the film itself a nomination in the Comedy category. Jason Reitman received the Best Directorial Debut award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.
The Thank You for Smoking soundtrack was released April 14, 2006 and the CD came out on April 18, 2006. The first nine tracks are popular songs about smoking taken from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The famous track "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" opens the film. The final four tracks are instrumentals from the original score of Rolfe Kent, who had been nominated for best original score for his work on Sideways. AllMusic wrote that "The thread is obvious, but the selections sound handpicked rather than researched solely on the basis of their subject matter." Other critics have called the soundtrack "demented."
- "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" (Tex Williams) – 2:54
- "Smoke Rings" (The Mills Brothers) – 2:55
- "Greenback Dollar" (The Kingston Trio) – 2:52
- "Little Organ Fugue" (The Swingle Singers) – 2:23
- "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (The Platters) – 2:40
- "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" (Patsy Cline) – 2:16
- "Cigarettes and Whisky" (Ramblin' Jack Elliott) – 2:02
- "Cigarettes and Coffee" (Otis Redding) – 3:52
- "Another Puff" (Jerry Reed) – 4:06
- "Intro & Tobacco One" (Rolfe Kent) – 3:02
- "Donate It & Sex Back in Cigarettes" (Rolfe Kent) – 3:01
- "Joey & Drums of Doom" (Rolfe Kent) – 2:59
- "Spanish Epilogue Revisited" (Rolfe Kent) – 3:00
- "Wind of Change" (Scorpions) – 5:11
The DVD was released on October 3, 2006 by 20th Century Fox, with both a widescreen and fullscreen edition. Each DVD contains two commentaries, one exclusively with Reitman and another with Reitman, Eckhart, and Koechner. Other extras include thirteen deleted scenes, a Charlie Rose interview, a making-of featurette, an "America: Living in Spin" featureette, a poster gallery, and an art gallery. The film has not yet been released on Blu-ray.
Variety reported on November 24, 2006 that NBC planned to create a television series based on the film. Sacks headed the adaptation as executive producer, with Rick Cleveland attached as head writer. After NBC passed on the project, it was brought to NBC's cable network, USA. James Dodson was set up as head writer as well as co-executive producer alongside Sacks. USA's chief programming executive Jeff Wachtel initially described the character as living between the morally ambiguous character of the film and Robin Hood. The series planned to adopt a different title and sought to start where the movie left off. The project never materialized and no official series of the movie has since developed. However, ABC's show Better Off Ted has been described as a "TV-sized version of Thank You for Smoking".