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Watching

Video Digest: March 23, 2006

Thanking Aaron Eckhart for ssssmokin'.

Smoking ain’t the popular kid it used to be. Even rebellious kids are shunning cancer sticks these days, no matter how many Parliaments Lindsay Lohan sucks down while table-dancing. Two weeks ago, a report from the association of state attorneys general reported smoking is at its lowest rate in over 50 years. Good news for some. But for the Nick Naylors of the world, that stuff’ll kill ya.

Played by Aaron Eckhart, Naylor is the lead character in Thank You for Smoking, the slick, enjoyable satire based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel. He is the spin doctor for Big Tobacco at a time before billion-dollar lawsuits and negative advertising took the steam (and the scratch) from the mighty empire. His job is to sell the world on cigarettes, and he does it well. “You know that guy who can pick up any girl?” he asks. “That’s me.”

The film concerns Naylor’s battle with Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy), a staunch anti-smoking advocate as humorless as his Birkenstocks, as well as Naylor’s battle for the hearts and minds of his boss, his precocious son, and—oh, yes—the American public. Into this mix walk an amusing string of insiders, like the lobbyists for firearms and alcohol who call themselves Merchants of Death (the MOD squad) and regularly meet to argue, among other things, whose vice kills more people per year. That’s the kind of dishy cynicism that fills this fast-paced little film, in which the good guys are hypocrites and the bad guys sometimes tell it like it is. The movie is adapted and directed by Jason Reitman with a neon, over-the-top flashiness Nick Naylor would surely enjoy. Maybe that comes from Reitman’s previous work in TV ads, although it should also be mentioned he is the son of Ivan Reitman, whose Animal House, Ghostbusters, and Stripes are nothing short of comedy classics.

Thank You for Smoking is similarly littered with well-known, likable actors—Macy, Maria Bello, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe—and all of their performances are good, if a bit wink-wink and hammy (though to be fair, the roles are clearly written that way). Most impressive, however, is Eckhart as the “yuppie Mephistopheles.” A character actor who looks like a leading man, Eckhart has played so many different roles you probably don’t realize how often you’ve seen him. Since hitting the scene as the chilling lead in Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, he has played the tender-hearted biker of Erin Brockovich, the mulleted redneck of Nurse Betty, and the schlump whose wife cheats on him in Your Friends & Neighbors. The only thing that’s remained consistent is his excellence and that crater of a chin dimple. Gratefully, Thank You for Smoking lets him play up his sly comic ability without making him downplay his winning smile. When he turns on the charm, it’s hard not to like the guy. Or light up.

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