Spin Control 

The well-cast Thank You For Smoking aims at a bigger threat than cigarettes.

With his most-showy recent roles as Julia Roberts' hunky boyfriend in Erin Brockovich and opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the literary romance Possession, Aaron Eckhart's good looks have been used as romantic leading man. But his unforgettable breakout role as amoral, womanizing corporate striver Chad in Neil LaBute's 1997 film In the Company of Men indicated early-on that Eckhart had a unique ability to tap into a darkness beneath his rugged handsomeness.

This quality gets tapped by first-time director Jason Reitman (son of Hollywood vet Ivan), who gives Eckhart the juicy role of tobacco-industry lobbyist and spokesperson Nick Naylor in his mild satire Thank You For Smoking. The film (which was produced by Memphis native and Memphis University School graduate David O. Sacks) is adapted from Christopher Buckley's best-selling novel of the same title.

On the surface, the movie would seem to be aimed at the tobacco industry itself, which helps kill thousands of people every year. And Thank You For Smoking definitely gets in some good shots at an industry ripe for satirical attack. Eckhart's Naylor works for a tobacco-industry lobbying organization called the Academy of Tobacco Studies, which employs a German scientist to search fruitlessly for the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. "The man's a genius," Naylor says approvingly in voiceover. "He could disprove gravity."

But as an anti-cigarette satire, Thank You For Smoking isn't terribly sharp; indeed, the odd decision to keep smoking itself off-screen almost feels like the kind of reverse product placement the tobacco industry might have wished for in a movie of this sort.

The target of Thank You For Smoking is really self-rationalization and spin-doctoring, societal ills more hidden and perhaps more damaging at this point than smoking, which pretty much everyone knows is poison, even heavy users. It's about how someone like Naylor operates rationally and effectively within a moral vacuum. About how his view of himself collides with how others see him.

As the film opens, Naylor is on a daytime talk show opposite three anti-smoking activists and a teen smoker with cancer. He's nearly booed out of the building, but Naylor is such a ferocious, shameless salesman that he keeps fighting until he quiets the crowd if not outright wins them over. And he does so by mercilessly turning the tables on public-health advocates: He insists that anti-smoking activists actually benefit from tobacco deaths, while the smoking industry instead loses a customer, thus implying it's actually his opponent that exploits the cancer victim, not the cigarette industry.

Eckhart is perfect in this role as a happy warrior in the service of whoever's signing his checks because his sliminess is never separable from his charm. When he pitches his co-workers on the notion of Hollywood product placement so that movies can make smoking seem cool again -- the way they did in the '40s when Bacall asked Bogie for a match -- you're as dazzled by the presentation as his fellow lobbyists.

But the ace casting doesn't end with Eckhart. As fellow vice-peddlers for the alcohol and gun lobbies, respectively, Maria Bello and David Koechner (sportscaster Champ Kind in Anchorman) are a hoot. Sam Elliott is a perfect fit as a cancer-ridden former Marlboro Man, and The OC's Adam Brody is a smarmy wonder as an unctuous Hollywood underling.

Other supporting players --Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall -- don't fare quite as well. Regardless, Eckhart is enough to carry the movie. When he teaches his son the art of giving bullshit responses to equally bullshit questions, it's a grade-school lesson that could come in handy at a future Senate hearing. And when his son responds with confusion about being right or wrong, Naylor offers the definitive advice for negotiating modern America, which hints at a threat far greater and more ubiquitous than cigarettes: "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong"

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