Thank You for Smoking

| March 26, 2006

With his clean-cut features, athletic physique, and devil-may-care smile, Aaron Eckhardt has the look of a classic Hollywood movie star – think Cary Grant with a square jaw. Yet he’s never quite been able to make that leap into Leading Man superstardom. Perhaps that’s because, beneath that charismatic, All-American veneer lies a strain of unadulterated sleaze. Stare at his affable, welcoming grin long enough and it begins to look more like a ironic sneer. Eckhardt has made a career out of playing charming but cold-blooded scumbags, amoral bastards who conceal their corruption behind expensive suits and bland amiability. His breakthrough was, of course, Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a brilliant but truly nasty satire that cast him as the ultimate Wall Street, alpha-male monster. Since that tour de force performance, his most memorable work has been of a similar vain; he may be doomed, it seems, to a life of playing arrogant, black-hearted scoundrels.
But there’s something to be said for doing what you do best, and no one’s better at seductive sliminess than Aaron Eckhardt. Thank You For Smoking, the first feature from writer-director Jason Reitman, would seem to be the perfect showcase for the actor’s unique talents. He stars as Nick Naylor, a high-profile lobbyist for Big Tobacco, and a master showman. Perpetually dancing around the truth and articulately defending his position with sly, specious logic, Naylor is a devious spin-doctor, a “yuppie Mephistopheles,” and Eckhardt tackles the role with conviction and bravado. He plays him like JFK crossed with Tom Cruise: always talking, always smiling, always “on.” And, as the sardonic voice-over narration makes clear, he’s also fully aware of (and proud of) his flexible ethics. “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk,” he remarks with gleeful satisfaction, and it’s hard not to be entranced by this coolly amoral shyster.
Eckhardt’s career-high performance is the best thing about Thank You For Smoking, an uneven satire that alternates between being scathingly funny and basically losing its nerve. Adapted from a hit novel by Christopher Buckley, the film takes aim at liberals and conservatives, tobacco companies and health activists, all with the same amount of vigor and venom. Colorful and fast-paced, much of the first half pops with darkly comic energy. Every week, Naylor meets up with a pair of fellow lobbyists, one pulling for the alcohol companies (Maria Bella), the other for the firearm industry (David Koechner, a.k.a. Champ from Anchorman). They’re the MOD Squad (as in Merchants of Death), and every time the three are on screen together (talking shop, sharing war stories, comparing death rates) the movie comes alive. There are also wonderful bits with Robe Lowe as a sleazy Hollywood agent and Sam Elliot as the original Marlboro Man, who’s bitter and dying of cancer. But the best scenes belong to Eckhardt: in one inspired moment, he essentially talks a group of school children into trying cigarettes for themselves before they make up their mind about them. When the film is on target (as it is any time that Eckhardt is doing his seedy, deceptive thing) it’s ruthlessly, consistently enjoyable.
The trouble is, Naylor is not actually the heartless, cutthroat rouge he appears to be. He has a soft side, a flicker of moral conscience, and it’s tied directly to his relationship with his twelve-year-old son, Joey (Cameron Bright, that creepy kid from Birth). To say that this relationship is unconvincing is a vast understatement: despite the moral and intellectual conversations the two have, it’s difficult to sense much of an emotional connection between them. This wouldn’t be a problem were it intentional, as it allegedly is in the novel, but Reitman unwisely decides to hinge Naylor’s entire conflict upon his desire to be a good role model for his son. The movie becomes a half-hearted redemption piece, one that conflicts a great deal with its midnight-black satirical edge.
Eventually, Naylor takes on an ambitious journalist (Katie Holmes, miscast as usual) who sleeps with him then writes a smear piece about him, and a wimpy Vermont senator with the improbable moniker of Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy, slumming it in a thankless part). It’s in Naylor’s climatic battle with Finistirre that the film actually tries to have its cake and eat it too: Reitman casts Eckhardt as a relentless defender of Big Tobacco, yet simultaneously saddles him with a moral dilemma that we don’t believe for a minute. The movie softens its blow at the exact moment in which it should be digging the knife in, and Naylor comes out looking like not such a bad guy after all. Behind the smarmy cynicism lies a gooey, jelly center, and the same can be said for the movie itself. For all its nastiness and caustic humor, the film stops just short of achieving the true satirical bite it’s aiming for. Ultimately betraying its more daring, wickedly ironic intentions, Thank You For Smoking is a sheep in wolves’ clothing.

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