Aaron Eckhart should have been a much bigger movie star than he is by now. He’s got the dazzling good looks and the killer charisma required, but after several first-rate performances in little films (THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS), fine journeyman’s work playing second-fiddle to powerhouse female leads (Julia Roberts’ boyfriend in ERIN BROCKOVITCH) and a few missteps (THE CORE did no one’s career any good), he seemed stalled just on the brink of breaking into the front ranks of hunky leading men who can open a film. With THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, a film that might have been tailored for Eckhart, that break might just have arrived.
He plays Nick Naylor, a high-powered and high-paid V.P. at the Institute of Tobacco Studies, which was founded by the tobacco companies and dedicated to the fine art of obfuscating the downside of cigarettes. While shark-like lawyers and a befuddled mad-scientist play fast and loose with the finer points of facts, Nick is tasked with not so much refining tobacco’s image, as changing the premise of the argument against smoking. He’s just the man for the job, with those dazzling good looks I mentioned before, a lock on the illusion of sincerity, and a gift for spin that is even more dazzling that his looks, he molds peoples perceptions using smoke, mirrors, and the idea that personal choice is an ideal that no one, not even the Surgeon General’s office should be able to deprive an honest citizen of exercising.
As the spinmeister of spinmeisters charms his way through every impossible situation, though, the spin begins to accelerate without him noticing it and soon speeds beyond even Nick’s ability to control it, and his life, once so simple and straightforward behind the double-talk, becomes dangerously complicated.
Director Jason Reitman, who adapted the screenplay from Christopher Buckley’s novel of the same name, maintains a light comedic touch with a pace that is as nimble as Nick’s tongue, but while our hero never actually discusses issues, the film delights in the savage skewering of the absurdity to be found in all of them and their advocates. Nick may be the devil’s advocate, but that devil, The Captain (played to aged perfection by Robert Duvall), is a self-made tobacco mogul, and perhaps the nicest person in the film, certainly the most emotionally genuine. Nick’s nemesis, on the other hand, Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H Macy in fine fettle) is an over-anxious, self-righteous prig whose campaign to destroy the cigarette industry smacks just a little too much of wanting to be in the spotlight, even though said spotlight never fails to show up his shortcomings, of which there are many. It creates a nice dynamic around which the other characters revolve. These include Nick’s self-styled Merchant of Death support group/ drinking buddies (Maria Bello and David Koechner), who lobby for alcohol and guns and never cease to be annoyed that people aren’t as enamored of said items as they are and take a creepy sort of pleasure in their product’s body counts; a zen-nish Hollywood deal maker (Rob Lowe) given to costumes and koan-like non-response responses; a newspaper reporter (Katie Holmes being just a little too perky) who may be even more morally ambiguous than Nick; and Sam Elliot as the ex-Marlboro Man who wields a bad attitude, a big gun, and a case of terminal cancer with equal determination when Nick is sent to see him on a secret mission from The Captain.
Where the film plays it serious is with Nick’s son, Joey (Cameron Bright), a solemn kid with a sharp mind and a way of glomming onto Nick’s glib tongue and morally flexible world
view that is at once a giddy delight and a cautionary tale writ large. We can all but hear his brain click into high gear when listening to his old man explain the lobbying biz, he realizes that this isn’t just a way to earn big bucks, it’s a hypnotic kind of power over other people. For all his failings, though, Eckhart summons up the coy sort of tenderness Nick has towards Joey that he can’t quite summon up for anyone else, even himself.
There is something to offend just about everyone in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, even foodies, and that’s a compliment. This is a smart and witty delight that, perversely, for all its broad humor has the sort of subtlety to never once show anyone actually lighting up. Satire well done, as it is here, may be the most lethal form social commentary. It is certainly the most entertaining.