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Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

He fires on all cylinders

Once upon a time a cigarette was the movie star's best friend. Every A-list celeb held one between their fingers, tipped to just the right angle. Smoke was an accessory (and a necessity) on par with cowboy boots and little black dresses. That equation went out the window long ago, but as Nick Naylor emphasizes in "Thank You For Smoking" -- "we've got to put the sex back into cigarettes. It's the only way to sell 'em," and seeks to get movie characters to start sucking back those on-screen ciggies once more ("Right now the only people who smoke are Europeans or villains!").

Thank You For Smoking Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Aaron Eckhart stars in "Thank You For Smoking." (c)2006 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Jason Reitman
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 14, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Nick is worth listening to, not so much for his arguments, but for the rapid-fire, motormouth, sincere-for-two-minutes way he says them: the ideal Washington lobbyist, or more to the point, true to his nickname: the "Sultan of Spin."

Directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan "Ghostbusters" Reitman) in what is a hugely entertaining feature debut, "Thank You For Smoking" is the tale of Nick (excellently portrayed by Aaron Eckhart), who is the PR spokesman for Big Tobacco, and is a man who, in his own words, "knows what it's like to be despised."

Advocating that most hated of human habits (and he does it for a living), Nick is the kind of man for whom the phrase "gift of the gab" had been invented. He challenges anyone who challenges him on the demerits of nicotine and that includes his son's 12-year-old classmates. ("My mommy says cigarettes will kill you." "Oh really? Well, is your mommy a doctor or a research scientist? No?") Nick is so slick that he appears on a TV Talk Show where the entire audience is ready to spit in his face, and by the commercial break he's shaking hands with "Cancer Boy," a 15-year-old ex-smoker who has sworn to never get sucked into the habit again because cigarettes have literally, almost destroyed his life. ("Believe me, it's in the best interests of the tobacco industry to keep this young man alive!"). Nick is not alone in being hated, and he revels in the weekly ritual lunches he has with his two buddies (Maria Bello and David Koechner) from alcohol and firearms lobbyists respectively -- in which they compare notes on daily death tolls spawned by their products. The trio call themselves the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad.

Reitman had been hanging around movie sets since infancy and it shows in the glibness and competently varnished sheen of the film. -- there's hardly a rough edge to be found anywhere. Nor does it say anything that hasn't been said before, in a more compelling way by other Big Business exposes ("The Insider," also about the tobacco industry, immediately comes to mind).

The true value of "Thank You" isn't about the evils of power, but in the small character vignettes that only someone who had grown up smack in the middle of Hollywood culture would know. There's a hilarious portrayal of a Hollywood entertainment exec (Rob Lowe) who's so work driven he only sleeps on Sundays, is perpetually on the hands-free phone, decorates his office with Japanese samurai armor and eats at Nobu. His personal assistant, Jack (Adam Brody), is even better; a guy so groomed and so naturally phony he comes off like a plastic figurine, programmed to spew endless Hollywood chatter.

But the real charmer in "Thank You" is, surprisingly, Nick; in-your-face verbose, he somehow has a nugget of sincerity in his soul which shows when he's with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright). Usually in expose stories children don't appear at all or, when they do, are relegated to the periphery of adult existence, but Reitman draws Joey as being an integral part of Nick's life, no matter how busy he is or how questionable his profession. Divorced from his wife but determined to remain Joey's father, Nick even takes him on business trips and lays it all out for his son to see, including one memorable segment where he takes a suitcase full of cash to "The First Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott)," now dying of cancer and giving Big Tobacco a lot of bad press. In the process Joey gets doses of realism ("we all got to pay the mortgage") tempered with lectures on the finer points of negotiation, debate and argument. Nick may not be in the most honorable of jobs but he's a superdad, involved with Joey in a way that few fathers can, or have the inclination to be.

Nick's vulnerability extends to his relationships with women. When investigative reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) approaches him for a story and then invites herself back to his place, Nick spills all the beans of the trade, much of it stuff that he assumes is off the record. Heather back-stabs him with a sizzling inside editorial on the workings of the tobacco industry and Nick is genuinely shocked. "Why are you doing this to me?" he asks her bewilderingly, exposing a greenhorn innocence that he really shouldn't have, but has anyway. Nick is the embodiment of Reitman's message: The job doesn't always make the man.

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