Thank You for Smoking written and directed by Jason Reitman, from the novel by Christopher Buckley, with Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, William H. Macy and Katie Holmes. 92 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (March 24). For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Director Jason Reitman has a wonderful laugh. Deep, booming, it's the sort of Santa Claus belly laugh that's impossible to ignore.
Sitting in his suite at the Park Hyatt Hotel, where he's conducting interviews, I can hear it going full force. He'll laugh a lot today, but I soon realize it's when he's not laughing that I'll meet the real Reitman.
Thank You For Smoking is his first feature-length film, a hilarious satire based on Christopher Buckley's 1994 bestseller about tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), an oily charmer you hate to love. It's a gutsy movie, the sort of debut that will get people looking at Reitman highly regarded for his short films and award-winning commercials in a whole new way.
Reitman can't believe it.
"This movie makes people think I'm smart, which amazes me," he says, laughing, then adds, "but nothing will make you feel less political than what happened to me last night, being in DC with Chris Matthews (of TV's Hardball fame), and just sitting there listening to him talk while I nodded my head repeatedly like a dumb child."
He's equally deferential when it comes to novelist Buckley, even claiming to prefer the author's writing to his own screenplay.
"I like the book because every time I read it I find all these wonderful details that I never got to put in the movie, and it breaks my heart." Jokingly, he continues, "Buckley likes the movie cuz sales of his book went through the roof."
I can't help noticing how anti-Hollywood Reitman seems, sprawled casually on the couch, wearing jeans (definitely not designer) and a T-shirt, hair rumpled in the way that suggests the recent removal of a baseball cap, not the carefully tousled machinations of some well-paid hairdresser. Refreshing when you consider this is a guy who's lived there all his life and is a true son of the business.
When we start talking about his filmmaking roots, notably his father director/producer Ivan Reitman the self-deprecating humour becomes less amicable. It's not always fun to have a famous parent.
"People think you're an arrogant spoiled brat with no talent. And a drug problem. Then again, people often presume your work will be mediocre, and because of that you don't have to do much to impress them.
"If nepotism was ever going to help me," he continues, "I wish it could have helped me in 2001 when I was trying to make this movie and no studio would make it. Three turned me down. The film was financed by a 30-year-old guy from Palo Alto who sold his company on eBay for one and a half billion dollars."
I ask whether he bonded with Buckley over the novelist's own issues with overcoming a well-known dad. Reitman laughs drily.
"Yeah, our big joke is that we say our names appear in print so often as "Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman' and "Christopher (son of William F.) Buckley' that we decided we should legally change our names to include the parentheses."
He's earned the right to be admired on his own merits, particularly because he's carved out a different path, shunning the broad comedies his father made and displaying an ability to keep Buckley's tone yet make a movie distinctly his own.
But when I try to talk to him about some of the changes he's made to the book, he looks at me warily. "Oh, are you a big fan? You gonna rake me over the coals?"
I assure him quite the opposite is true, but he still looks nervous. Reitman carefully explains his decision to remove the character of cunning colleague Jeanette in favour of making reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) more manipulative.
"There was just no need to to portray all the women in Nick's life as scumbags." Then he adds defensively, "I don't think I really beefed up Heather too much. I just felt she served the same purpose."
Yes, he's a huge fan of Buckley's, and yeah, he doesn't like to toot his own horn, but surely, I push him to admit, he understands good comedy.
He's careful not to sound cocky, but he does concede that "people like to say that comedy is subjective. I once heard Janeane Garofolo say that's not true, that she knows what's funny, and as arrogant as that sounds, I think she had a point."
Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman) Rating: NNNN
How do you make a hero out of someone who proudly calls himself and his alcohol and firearms lobbyist buddies the MOD squad, for "merchants of death"? Well, it doesn't hurt to have Jason Reitman writing the script, or Aaron Eckhart saying the lines.
Based on Chris Buckley's book, which takes on Hollywood, liberal do-gooders, government and the age of spin, Reitman has made a faithful, charming adaptation. It is, however, a film that's actually sweeter than its source, thanks to Reitman's decision to scale back the Machiavellian colleagues out to sabotage Eckhart's Nick Naylor at every turn and pump up the relationship between Nick and son Joey (Cameron Bright).
Sure, Buckley's novel and the dream cast (Maria Bello, David Koechner, J. K. Simmons, Adam Brody) helped spark the now-famous $7 million bidding war, but it's Reitman's heart underneath the cynicism that makes the movie memorable.