Aaron Eckhart lights up the screen in Jason Reitman’s feature directorial debut and Toronto Film Festival favorite, Thank You For Smoking. It is the first comedy of 2006 aimed at people who like to flex their brain muscles, as it tackles taboo subjects ranging from Tobacco campaigning to journalistic mudslinging. Eckhart delivers his best performance since Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men, proving that he can play the smarmiest of bastards while still somehow keeping his cool.
Thank You For Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s acclaimed novel, has a provocative title which paves the way for razor-sharp satire. The story is about Nick Naylor (Eckhart), the Chief Spokesman for Big Tobacco. While ads and protestors spread the word that cigarettes are bad, his job is to offer the counter stance. He knows very well that cigarettes cause damage and death, but he has a knack for winning debates by picking away at other people’s arguments. As he tells his young son Joey (Birth’s Cameron Bright), "The beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
While his morals may be questionable, his talent for spinning things in his favor would put any award-winning debate team to shame. When a Vermont senator (William H. Macy) wants to smack poison labels on cigarette packs, Naylor launches a PR offensive and meets with a Hollywood big-wig agent (Rob Lowe) to put cigarettes back where they belong: in the movies. His reign of notoriety elevates when death threats pour in, and he meets an alluring reporter for a Washington newspaper (Katie Holmes). After she runs a damaging profile on him—using snippets he foolishly offered while in nude, compromising positions—he finally finds himself in a bind that fast talking won't fix.
Thank You For Smoking shines with its raw sense of humor and eagerness to poke fun at all sides. There is something to challenge and entertain everyone, regardless of who you voted for in the last election. The biggest comic relief comes when Naylor meets with fellow comrade lobbyists for alcohol (Mario Bello) and guns (David Koechner)—nicknamed the “MOD Squad”, short for “Merchants Of Death”—and they sit and hilariously whine about their immoral jobs over dinner. The ensemble cast is excellent, except for a weak turn by Katie Holmes, who is simply not believable as a ruthless reporter. She does throw in a “Dawson’s Creek” line by calling him, a ‘yuppie mephistopheles’, a reference that even Joey Potter would find head-scratching.
The film falters when the predictable climax strikes, forcing Naylor to evaluate his job and the negative influence it may have on his son. Such a moment is inevitable in these kinds of stories, and thankfully Reitman (son of director Ivan) steers clear of cheesiness by never showing him completely transform from cretin to hero. He is always the man we love to hate, and Thank You For Smoking is likely to win over anyone with its crooked charms.