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Photograph by Dale Robinette

Making His Point: Aaron Eckhart takes on the do-gooders in 'Thank You for Smoking.'

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Aaron Eckhart shills for big tobacco in the sharp satire 'Thank You for Smoking'

By Richard von Busack

LOOKING BACK at a distinguished career in his trade, Denis Bagley in How to Get Ahead in Advertising growled, "I'm the man who took the stink off of everything but shit." In the new comedy Thank You for Smoking, the sardonic Bagley finally has an equal: Aaron Eckhart's Nick Naylor. This spokesman for a pro-tobacco think tank is first seen squirming on the Joan Lunden TV show, next to several do-gooders and a chemo-bald teenager referred to as "Cancer Boy." (That's a stolen Kids in the Hall joke, but at least it's a joke worth filching.) Naylor stops the show to explain that this is his life: always in the hot seat. Divorced and in need of child support, he spends his days fighting the overwhelming evidence that cigarettes kill.

We see him in action, scheming against a senator (William H. Macy) who seeks to brand the skull and crossbones on cigarette packs. Nick overcomes interoffice politics to get past his boss (J.K. Simmons, J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man) to stay in the good graces of the cigarette tycoon (Robert Duvall with a julep-thickened drawl). One of his tasks is to bribe a cancer-struck ex-Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott).

In his spare time, Vic lunches with his fellow mouthpieces, including Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), who is a functioning-alcoholic spokeswoman for the booze industry. But his biggest campaign yet is to jet to Hollywood on "Tobacco One" to arrange product placement in the movies.

The industry sequences are well informed: they show how all power resides in the hands of the talent agency. The chairman of the agency is Rob Lowe's Jeff Megall, a pool-tanned reptile who schemes for a big payoff to insert cigarettes into the next Brad Pitt blockbuster. As an evolved Southern Californian, Megall has surrounded himself with Japanoiseries: a silk tapestry of samurai filleting each other and a karesansui rock garden in the lobby. Megall's assistant upbraids the gardener: "Hurry up, those pebbles won't rake themselves."

Nick falls from grace trusting a reporter, Heather (Katie Holmes, not photographed as revealingly as the Internet gossip suggested). But this sequence doesn't convince. Perhaps if the filmmakers had used an actress less sly-looking than Holmes? How could Nick get as far as he did and still endanger himself in an elementary honey trap? After his downfall, the film has to reboot. The three-act structure isn't shaped well, and that causes a lull toward the end of the satire.

Still, this adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel has vintage lines: "This is an '82 Margaux. It'll make you believe in God." And it also boasts a well-picked oldies soundtrack to smooth the low-budget edges. The titles set things off right: Tex Williams' jaunty "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!" is heard over a montage of familiar cigarette art—the Kool glacier, the castle on a pack of Kents and those spurious coats of arms that make every air-befouler feel like an English milord.

Eckhart is in the right role at last. He has a manly chin, like a cartoon superhero, but a superhero who has gone to seed. He sports untrustworthy stubble, and he can't conceal a glint in his eye, like a fox soothing the occupants of a hen house. He looks as ruddy as Renyard himself, from the brown-red tones of the movie; even the more well-bred real estate here looks as if some nicotine seeped into the walls.

Director Jason Reitman executes the gaff of making the scoundrel lovable by giving him a child. But the child is a little eerie. He is played by ice-eyed Cameron Bright. Having been the reincarnated lover in the very weird Birth, Bright would be a natural for a remake of The Turn of the Screw. Joey is being educated at St. Euthanasius. In truth, he's learning from his father, who tries to explain the way of the world during their custody weekends.

As in any top-drawer comedy about con artists, we applaud the matchstick man whose dodges we like the best. You have to admire the weasel for his stealth. I lost my own mother to cigarette-caused cancer, and I still can't stand the abrasive smugness of the truth.org campaigns. It is ticklish to finally see this skewering of the anti-smoking crusaders' stagy outrage.

But the film carries a chill in the scenes of Nick and Joey. So this is what it would have been like to have William F. Buckley as a father! One gets an inkling of Chris Buckley's childhood, taught by a father who'd had the best Jesuitical training, combined with a natural lust for controversy—a man, as we've learned over the decades, who could persuade the stripes off a zebra. Nick tells his son (and this has to be a William F. Buckley original line), "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong."

This is a lesson that the left-wing needs. For years, the movement has depended on moral righteousness and emotional conviction. That's why it always gets smoked, so to speak, trying to outwit the Nick Naylors of the world. The left needs to meet the devil at his own debating society.

Thank You for Smoking (R; 92 min.), directed and written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, photographed by Jim Whitaker and starring Aaron Eckhart, opens Friday.

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From the March 22-28, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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