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Smoking’ lights up debate

Molly Griffin | Friday, April 21, 2006

Smoking is bad. Smoking is good. PR can paint tobacco in either light, as the satirical new film “Thank You For Smoking” reveals. The film takes shots at the tobacco industry, the anti-tobacco lobby and public debate in America in general. With a great cast, fresh directing and a unique satirical perspective, the film succeeds in making an entertaining film that questions just how fluid media debates can be.

The film’s opening scene shows Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) dressing down anti-smoking crusaders on a talk show. Naylor manages to make them look like ‘the bad guys,’ even in the presence of a bald teenage cancer victim, This scene, alternately uncomfortable and hilarious, sets the tone for the entire movie.

Naylor works as a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an organization funded by the tobacco companies themselves. Naylor’s job basically consists of doing the impossible – making tobacco companies look good – but the film makes watching Naylor do his work enjoyable in an uncomfortable sort of way.

Naylor attempts to balance his relationship with his son Joey (Cameron Bright) with his morally ambiguous job. His two best friends, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), work for the Alcohol and Firearms companies respectively. The trio calls themselves the MOD, or the “Merchants of Death” squad, revealing the kind of satirical humor prevalent in “Thank You For Smoking.”

Problems for Naylor begin when he attempts to fight an anti-smoking crusade started by Senator Ortolan K. Finisitirre (William H. Macy), and he has an affair with journalist Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes). All of the work he has done for the tobacco companies falls apart, and they disown him when it becomes too complicated.

The plot of the film is fairly simple, but the real joy is watching different situations and seeing just how Naylor talks his way out of them. He does everything from sucking up to a tobacco baron (Robert Duvall), paying off a former Marlboro Man (Same Elliott) and dealing with a Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe) and his sycophantic assistant (Adam Brody).

The most noticeable thing about the film is the unique style of the film, which is quick, quirky and matches the spin technique perfected by the movie’s protagonist. Jason Reitman, son of “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman, gives the film a fresh feeling that balances its tongue-in-cheek approach with the seriousness of the topic.

The film also balances its criticism of the tobacco industry by pointing out the near-hysteria surrounding anti-smoking lobbying in a way that keeps it from feeling like a propaganda film or a lecture.

While the style of the film makes it unique, the cast of “Thank You For Smoking” allows the film to balance its sensitive topic nature with the right blend of humor and satire. Eckhart is excellent as Naylor, and the supporting roles are played to perfection. Bello and Koechner are hilarious Naylor’s counterparts. Macy, Duvall and Lowe are all great in small parts. Another notable player is “Spider-Man” actor J.K. Simmons, who plays Naylor’s intense boss Budd “BR” Rohrabacher.

From an acting perspective, perhaps the only weak link in the film is Katie Holmes – not because she can’t act, but because she doesn’t seem to possess the right combination of seduction and manipulation needed to pull off her part.

“Thank You For Smoking” is a smart, funny look at how public debates take place in our society and just how ridiculous they can be. The movie’s mix of a great cast, unique style and a balanced approach allow the film to pull off a satire, a notoriously difficult genre to get right.