Burning man 

click to enlarge Aaron Eckhart (as Nick Naylor) wags a finger at the press - in Thank You for Smoking.
  • Aaron Eckhart (as Nick Naylor) wags a finger at the press in Thank You for Smoking.

*Thank You for Smoking (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak
Aaron Eckhart has a broad, slow smile, a square chin with a deep dimple, close-set eyes and a thatch of thick, sandy hair a movie-star face. That he has only now, after 14 years of largely unmemorable roles, found his star vehicle, is the best reason to go see Thank You for Smoking, a smart little satire that jabs at the absurd practices of lobbying in American policy-making.

Eckhart, who made a brief splash as another, significantly meaner asshole in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, plays Nick Naylor, golden boy of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a bogus research organization designed to discredit medical data linking cigarette smoking with health problems and death. "I have a bachelor's in kickin' ass and takin' names," says Nick, who knows he's a bullshitter but loves to argue for the simple purpose of disarming others.

"If you argue correctly, you're never wrong," he teaches his little boy, Joel (Cameron Bright), who quickly applies what he's learned to a school assignment: Write an essay about why the American government is the best government in the world. Doesn't matter if the premise is true; all that matters is the eloquence of the argument.

Opposing Naylor in the public arena is Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finisterre, played by a wiry and nervous William H. Macy, in thick wool socks and Birkenstocks, his office decorated with a collection of vintage maple syrup bottles. Finisterre is pushing legislation that will place a skull-and-crossbones-enhanced "poison" label on all cigarette packages, and Nick must figure out how to effectively argue against the measure at a public Senate hearing.

The wandering and frequently patchy plot leads to that showdown scene, entertaining us with snippets from Nick's lobbying lifestyle along the way, most notably his weekly meetings with the MOD (Merchants of Death) squad. Joining him in the trio is a gun-happy firearms-industry lobbyist (David Koechner) and a spin doctor for alcohol, played by a dour, wine-swilling Maria Bello. They gripe about the difficulty of their jobs, measuring the challenge by weekly body counts, putting Nick at the head of the pack.

Another hilarious foray has Nick in L.A., negotiating with a Hollywood super-agent (Rob Lowe) to put cigarettes back into films. Lowe and Adam Brody ("The OC"), his smarmy assistant, are wonderful purveyors of the natural marriage of product placement with commercial films a concept, Brody proudly brags, his boss invented.

A snazzy opening-title sequence featuring names scrawled on a rolling series of stylish cigarette boxes promises better production design than the movie delivers, and the poppy musical background becomes a distraction. But terrific character acting, most notably by Eckhart, holds the film together. Brief appearances by Robert Duvall as a North Carolina tobacco magnate and Sam Neill as the former Marlboro Man, now dying of lung cancer, deepen an already-rich palette.

First-time director Jason Reitman (son of producer-director Ivan Reitman of Stripes and Ghostbusters fame) maintains an even hand and a steady tone that never threatens overkill and ultimately has us rooting for the sleazy guy at the end. Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F. Buckley), Thank You for Smoking is a hopeful sign that smart comedies haven't been completely replaced by dumb ones. And, hey, a few well-placed punches at Washington in these grimly absurd times couldn't be more welcome.

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