March 13, 2006

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Thank You for Smoking (R)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Aaron Eckhart plays a salesman of spin in the smart, snappy satire Thank You for Smoking, a film based on the Christopher Buckley novel.

Eckhart is great at playing the bastard and perhaps the very best at it when, as here, his bastardry is so humble and honest it’s damn near lovable. Nick Taylor (Eckhart) might be a spin doctor for big tobacco but it’s not like he’s actually evil. He just works for evil and accepts the paycheck because he has a mortgage to pay (actually, he pays to put two roofs over his family’s head — there’s the big house his wife lives in with her new doctor boyfriend and the D.C. apartment where Nick resides). He is also very, very good at arguing for evil, making evil look less like evil and more like a lifestyle choice that is every American’s God-given right to make. He meets up with his two friends — talkers for the firearms and alcohol industries and calling themselves the Merchants of Death — to discuss their talk abilities and to brag, just a little bit, about whose product kills more people.

His winning smile and golden boy (without too much smug) personality not only keep Nick relatively human in spite of his inhuman bosses — the mercenary-like BR (J.K. Simmons) and the walking-corpse-like Captain (Robert Duvall) who controls big tobacco — it makes his adversaries seem far less likable. On Joan Lunden’s talk show, he befriends a childhood cancer victim saying with genuine-ish sincerity that he wants to keep the young man alive and smoking. His exchange of high-fives with the bald teen only further digs under the skin of Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), the Vermont politician leading the charge to put a skull and crossbones on a package of cigarettes. Finistirre might be on the side of angels, but his rightness is lost in his overwhelming righteousness, beautifully symbolized by the Birkenstocks he wears over his socks around the Capitol.

Plan B should the poison symbol become a part of the label is to get Hollywood’s help to make smoking cool, a project that sends Nick to Hollywood to meet with a vicious but dippy agent (Rob Lowe) and his fastest-sycophant-in-the-west assistant (Adam Brody).

Second to paying the mortgage, Nick’s other ambition seems to be winning the admiration of his Joey (Cameron Bright), a boy who slowly learns the art and benefits of spin. When a story from the sleazy reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) knocks Nick down, it’s Joey who’s able to talk him back up.

Thank You for Smoking is a giddy amount of fun that, like Finistirre’s Vermont cheese, seems only to have improved with the years between novel and adaptation. Where Buckley’s novels can sometimes get bogged down with details or a little smooshy near the end, the film stays sharp throughout, never going off message. (What message? That all politics is not so much local as it is absurd.) The movie doesn’t want to save the world, to persuade you or make a statement. It merrily, skillfully and thoroughly uncovers the hypocrisy of its subjects and asks only that you laugh along. A-


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