Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Aaron Eckhart pollutes the airwaves with his spin in ‘Thank You for Smoking.’
Thank You for Smoking\r\nStarring Aaron Eckhart and Cameron Bright. Written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on Christopher Buckley’s novel. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas, opens everywhere Apr. 14.
Nicotine Hit

Take a deep drag from Thank You for Smoking, a brilliant satire of spin.


Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nick Naylor. Nick is a tobacco lobbyist. He works tirelessly to improve the public image of an industry that by his own cheerful admission kills 1,200 people every day. Despite his unceasing efforts, he never convinces anyone that cigarettes are harmless, not even himself. Everyone can see he’s full of crap, and he knows it. He just doesn’t care.

How does he sleep at night? Very well, because he’s fantastically gifted at his job, and he knows that, too: “You know that guy in the bar who can pick up any girl he wants? I’m him on crack!” He wins arguments against health advocates, tv pundits, and little girls by being an expert practitioner of what Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness.” He can face any set of facts, no matter how damning, and brush them aside as he blows rhetoric about “personal choice” and “freedom.” When asked what happens if he’s wrong, he replies, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” In saying so, he embodies the spirit of public figures who think they can justify any horrible behavior if they only spin hard enough. Nick Naylor is the oracle of our time. God help us.

He’s also somehow likable as the main character of Thank You for Smoking, the funniest and smartest movie so far this year. Perhaps that’s because he’s played by Aaron Eckhart. Since this sandy-haired, square-featured actor burst onto the scene in 1997’s In the Company of Men, he has made his name portraying toxic guys. What makes his characters so vivid is the gleeful edge to their cruelty; whether he’s a billionaire screwing over Ben Affleck in Paycheck, a white-trash used-car dealer screwing women other than his wife in Nurse Betty, or a cop screwing a mentally retarded man into falsely confessing to murder in The Pledge, you always sense that he’s laughing on the inside when he does terrible things. That joyfully smarmy persona has always had comic potential, and here it’s realized in grand style. Playing the part with nary a drop of his usual meanness, Eckhart locates Nick’s self-conscious delight at his own ability to argue the most outrageous points. It’s hard not to giggle at his bubbly demeanor when he tells a classroom full of kids to think for themselves and not listen to their teachers or parents. His wondrous light touch is key to this movie’s comic brilliance.

Based on Christopher Buckley’s novel, the movie follows Nick as he takes his son Joey (Cameron Bright) around the country and tells him — and us — exactly how he does his job. In Washington, he powwows with his closest friends (Maria Bello and David Koechner), lobbyists for alcohol and firearms respectively, who share their advice on speaking up for unpopular products. In L.A., Nick meets with a Hollywood superagent (Rob Lowe) to broker a product-placement deal for cigarettes in movies. In North Carolina, he’s given marching orders by an ancient tobacco mogul (Robert Duvall), who wants him to deliver a bribe to the original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), now dying of lung cancer.

The satire’s wide-ranging nature means that the story has to cover a lot of ground, and the movie might easily have become too scattered. Instead, it bops along on its irrepressible comic energy, thanks to 28-year-old writer-director Jason Reitman. The son of longtime Hollywood director Ivan Reitman shows huge talent here in his first filmmaking effort. His endlessly quotable script owes much to Buckley’s book, but it also brims with the filmmaker’s own punchlines (the ratio is about 60-40 in Reitman’s favor). The director smooths out the story construction, and even when he encounters stuff he can’t fix, like the clichéd character of a slutty ambitious female reporter with whom Nick has an affair (Katie Holmes), he handles it with sly wit. “I know what you’re thinking: This is a bad idea,” says Nick in voiceover as we see them having sex. “Come on! It’s not that bad an idea.”

If that’s not enough, Reitman also gets a large cast into the swing of this satire, making the supporting actors pop off the screen. Watch especially for a hilariously loose-limbed Adam Brody as a synthetic Tinseltown flunky and William H. Macy as a grandstanding anti-tobacco U.S. senator, doing a pitch-perfect caricature of a whiny, ineffectual liberal. The only misstep is Bright. The 13-year-old is everywhere these days (Running Scared, Ultraviolet, the upcoming X-Men movie — he’s this year’s Dakota Fanning), and his deadpan is welcome here, but his Joey doesn’t look sharp enough to have inherited his dad’s talent for debate.

No matter. Reitman flays everyone in his path, including lawyers, psychologists, journalists, and minority activists. More importantly, he captures where our culture is right now, which is snowed under by lies and the lying liars who tell them, whether it’s business leaders caught looting their own companies, athletes caught using steroids, writers caught fabricating their memoirs, or presidents caught starting wars on bad intelligence. They all indulge in Nick Naylor-like bloviating, and Thank You for Smoking lets you laugh your ass off at them all. Forget cigarettes, it’s public relations that’s the real menace to our health.

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