[Screen It]

(2006) (Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright) (R)

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Comedy: A tobacco industry lobbyist tries to put various sorts of spin on the product he represents while dealing with people who are both for and against his efforts.
Nick Naylor (AARON ECKHART) is the Vice-President of Tobacco Studies, the main lobbying firm for the tobacco industry. Although divorced from his ex-wife Jill (KIM DICKENS) and barely around for his son, Joey (CAMERON BRIGHT), Nick's the best spin doctor in the business who firmly believes in the mantra that that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong.

When he's not commiserating with the other members of the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad -- alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (MARIA BELLO) and gun industry spokesman Bobby Jay Bliss (DAVID KOECHNER) -- Nick directly works for BR (J.K. SIMMONS) who gets his marching orders from the Captain (ROBERT DUVALL), the revered, big boss of the tobacco industry.

Nick's latest foe is democrat U.S. Senator Ortolan Finistirre (WILLIAM H. MACY) who wants to put more graphic warning labels on cigarette packaging. But Nick's more interested in trying to convince Hollywood super-agent Jeff Megall (ROB LOWE) to do more tobacco-related product placement in his movies, while also delivering a bribe to Lorne Lutch (SAM ELLIOTT), the original Marlboro man who's dying from a life of smoking. And then there's Washington Probe reporter Heather Holloway (KATIE HOLMES) who's set her sights on Nick, blinding him to her real agenda.

While dealing with all of that and getting to know Joey who's along for the ride and observes his dad at work, Nick does what he can to convince everyone that while cigarettes might be bad, it's up to the individual to decide if they're right for themselves.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Tobacco is as old as America, and was the driving force behind its economy for years, with millions upon millions of users both here and abroad. Yet, for such a historic and popular product, it has this little downside -- it kills its users and bystanders. As a result, local municipalities are banning it, and even the tobacco industry companies are diversifying their product line and changing their names for the inevitable day when tobacco is no longer profitable and/or allowed.

But if "Thank You for Smoking" is any indicator, they're not going down without a fight. In this often devilishly funny, take-no-prisoners satire from writer/director Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman), Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, the lead spin doctor for the tobacco industry.

Nick's an expert at his job, and he can easily turn what seems like an Alamo type stand on a TV talk show into a victory by spinning the blame of a teen's smoking-related cancer from the cigarette manufacturers to the anti-smoking proponents and specialists he claims want "cancer boy" dead to further their agenda.

Yes, the comedy is black, but it's also quite funny in this decidedly politically incorrect, equal opportunity offender where no one -- lobbyists, congressman, the media and more -- is safe from satirical skewering. Featuring a sharply written script, a fun and occasionally whimsical directorial touch, and a terrific cast (that also includes Maria Bello, William H. Macy and Robert Duvall, among others), the film might not be for everyone's tastes (due to potentially offending some industry, vocation or belief -- or just because of its decidedly adult nature). Yet, it mostly hits its marks for those in the mood for some rather funny satire.

What makes the film work so well is Eckhart's portrayal of the lead character. Despite representing a bad industry, Naylor's just so charming and persuasive in his arguments and manipulativeness that you simply become drawn in by his very magnetic nature. You know you're not supposed to like him -- especially in this era of Jack Abramoff and other lobbying scandals -- but you just can't take your eyes or ears off him.

Reitman makes a wise and some might say manipulative move of humanizing the character by introducing a family related subplot. When we first see the character's son -- played by Cameron Bright -- he's pleading under his breath for his dad not to ruin his life during one of those school career day speeches. He doesn't, of course (although the scene -- like most others in the film -- provides dialogue ranging from amusing to hilarious), but that then leads to the storyline of the boy following his dad around the country and observing him at work.

Rather than feeling cloying, it fits in naturally with the flow of things, but it does help in making Eckhart's character sympathetic enough that he comes off as even that much more engaging. Of course, it's all designed just to show the protagonist interacting with all sorts of characters -- ranging from the other members of the "MOD Squad" (Merchants of Death -- meaning the alcohol and firearms lobbyists played by Bello and David Koechner), to gung-ho congressman (William H. Macy), product-placing Hollywood agents (Rob Lowe), the media (Kate Holmes) and even the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot).

Some of those interactions work better than others and the film could have fired off more shots. Yet, for the most part, it's smoking -- pun intended -- while skewering all of its targets, and everyone seems game for the satire. And that's especially true of Reitman who makes a rather impressive debut with this offering that stands out from the majority of the schlock that's been released so far this year. "Thank You for Smoking" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 3, 2006 / Posted March 24, 2006

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