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Humor is no drag on `Smoking'

March 17, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If you haven't heard of Nick Naylor and aren't quite sure who Aaron Eckhart is, "Thank You for Smoking" is going to change both situations once and for all.

Though he's been excellent in "Erin Brockovich," "In the Company of Men" and numerous other films, Eckhart has never had a role that as enjoyably suits his particular gifts as Nick Naylor, a.k.a. "the Yuppie Mephistopheles," the outlandishly amoral public face of the tobacco industry who prides himself on being one of "the few people on this planet who know what it is to be truly despised."

Naylor's outlandish exploits are the raison d'etre for "Thank You for Smoking," a very smart and funny movie directed by Jason Reitman, who also shrewdly adapted the screenplay from Christopher Buckley's savagely satiric novel.

So savage, in fact, that Mel Gibson's Icon Productions owned the book for almost a decade without figuring out a way to film it. Reitman, a successful creator of shorts and commercials, is the son of director Ivan Reitman, and his complete understanding of comedy has made "Thank You for Smoking" that rare film that actually has a sense of humor.

Reitman's script and direction retain the novel's rhythms and black comic sensibility while at the same time eliminating and/or rearranging large chunks of its plot. He's also figured out a way to make the story more conventionally audience-friendly without losing the extraordinary bite that made the book so successful.

That success is grounded in the film's fealty to the novel's raft of crazily comic but sadly believable characters, starting with the ultra-confident, gleefully glib, all but unfazable Mr. Naylor, the self-described Col. Sanders of nicotine.

As a man who not only has to but actually enjoys defending the indefensible, Eckhart's Naylor is one of the great talkers of his generation, someone who truly believes that "if you argue correctly, you're never wrong." Remember, he asks, the boy who could pick up any girl? "I'm him on crack." Not just anyone could do his job, he tells his earnest 12-year-old son, Joey ("Birth's" somber Cameron Bright): "It requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people."

Bringing Naylor to the screen is a tricky proposition. It requires an actor who can be convincingly amoral but also engaging and likable, someone whose actions horrify us but whose enthusiastic brio and ability to make the system do his bidding turn him into the hero almost against our will. It's a role that uses more facets of Eckhart than any has before, and he knows what to do with it.

Making it easier for audiences to embrace Naylor are changes the film has made to his character. While son Joey, who lives with his divorced mother, is barely mentioned in the novel, his part has been greatly expanded to turn Nick into someone who really cares that the youngster knows and understands him. Again, it's a tribute to Eckhart that he can do this within the context of a heel's persona.

Though the Joey scenario adds more sentiment than laughs, those are generated by the other people Naylor deals with in his so-called life, starting with the always entertaining fellow members of the Mod Squad.

These lunchtime companions, who enjoy referring to themselves as "merchants of death," include Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), an alcohol lobbyist and spokeswoman for the Moderation Council, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), a gun lobbyist and spokesman for SAFETY (the Society for the Advancement of Firearms and the Effective Training of Youth).

The Mod Squad supports Naylor in his rivalry with anti-tobacco Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) and tries to warn him against the wiles of top Washington reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), a woman who knows her way around a professional seduction. When she tells Naylor, "I'd love to see where the devil sleeps," she is not just being polite.

These shenanigans aside, "Thank You for Smoking" is at its most amusing when Naylor's boss, the Captain (Robert Duvall with a really thick accent), sends him out to dependable Hollywood, always a ripe subject for satire but especially so in the knowing Reitman's hands.

Naylor has two jobs in California. He has to offer a large sum of money to cowboy Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), the erstwhile Tumbleweed Man whose "Lasso Some Flavor" ads made him the living icon of tobacco -- until he went public with his inconvenient fight against lung cancer.

Naylor's other job is more fun and only slightly less surreal. He gets to meet with super agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), head of Entertainment Global, about a project that is close to Big Tobacco's heart: getting the movies to make smoking sexy again.

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