Tuesday, April 25, 2006

MOVIES: Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking is easily the best movie I've seen in the theaters this year. It's also almost the only movie I've seen in the theaters this year, but that's just a coincidence, I'm sure.

Aaron Eckhart gives a stellar performance as Nick Naylor, lobbyist for big tobacco, who lives by the philosophy, "If you argue right, you are right." He's not concerned with the morality of defending a product that kills 400,000 people a year (as he tells his son, his job requires a certain "moral flexibility"); he just likes to win arguments. Eckhart is supremely charismatic and confident, and also very funny. I've been a fan of his since In the Company of Men, but this is by far his best work. He absolutely nails it.

Eckhart is pursuing a scheme to make smoking in movies cool again, facilitated by Hollywood superagent Rob Lowe, who -- along with his assistant, played by Adam Brody -- delivers some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Meanwhile, he's preparing for a Senate hearing on tougher warning labels on cigarettes, the pet cause of Vermont Senator William H. Macy. He's also the subject of an in-depth interview from reporter Katie Holmes, who appears almost completely not crazy here. And he's trying to keep his company's owner, Robert Duvall, happy while avoiding the treachery of his immediate superior, played with snarling glee by J.K. Simmons, who, with this and his role as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies, might be cornering the movie market on hilariously sadistic bosses. All this in between meeting with his fellow M.O.D. (Merchants Of Death) Squad members, Maria Bello (alcohol) and David Koechner (firearms). It's a busy movie (and that's leaving out three or four other plotlines).

And it's a fantastic cast, top to bottom, and they all get their fair share of laugh lines. As when Bello and Koechner get bent out of shape and pouty because their products don't kill nearly as many people as Eckhart's does. Or when Simmons says the word "environmentalist" as though it gives him pain (accompanied by the subtitled translation of that word: "pussy"). Or when Brody explains the decor in Rob Lowe's office: "As you can see, Jeff just loves Asian shit."

It's almost too much of a good thing, too many people and too many stories, but it all holds together from beginning to end in a way very few films of this nature do. It's kind of an Altman-esque achievement, or maybe Altman lite; it's not as wild or brilliant or free-flowing as The Player or Nashville, but it covers a great deal of ground in a somewhat similar satirical fashion, and is a great success (though on a level below Altman's genius). It's director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman's first feature, and it suggests big things to come, in the same way another debut by a second generation director, Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, did. Check it out.

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