Nick Naylor is the best kind of villain. He's slimy, scummy, ruthless and wholly unapologetic. Yet, Naylor, the protagonist in the satiric Thank You for Smoking, possesses a lethal mixture of cockiness and charm, which somehow wins you over, no matter how slimy he is.
Thanks to seductive star Aaron Eckhart and a light yet wry screenplay by director Jason Reitman, the film version of Christopher Buckley's novel captures all the sly jabs that made the Washington-skewering book such a juicy read.
Eckhart, who was the instigator from In the Company of Men and the sweet-natured biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, is a character actor with a leading man's mug. Don't let his chiseled good looks throw you he can play both lecherous and lovable with great measure, which is perfect for a character like Naylor.
The film is set in the pre-big-settlement days, before lawsuit-happy smokers took on the cigarette makers and cashed in. Naylor is the voice of Big Tobacco on Capitol Hill. He and his M.O.D. Squad (as in Merchants Of Death) of gun and alcohol lobbyists meet for lunch and swap stories from the front lines in Washington. They have pissing matches over whose vice kills the most and whose lobby is the toughest sell.
Naylor never flinches, not when floating ideas like "the message Hollywood needs to send out is that smoking is cool." Nor does he dodge when getting sideswiped with a "cancer kid" on a talk show. He doesn't even backpedal to his son (Cameron Bright, that creepy kid from Birth who ripped off Haley Joel Osment's wide-eyed shtick), who's desperate to figure out what his dad does.
A host of big names make cameos, and reportedly for little compensation: Katie Holmes, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy and Rob Lowe, and even author Buckley.
It's a remarkable achievement for Reitman, a first-time feature director who cut his teeth in advertising and comic shorts. He brings a slickness and quick pace to the movie, which complements the levity of the script. He also employs typical documentarian conventions campy graphics and stock clips, clever labels, etc. Yet this is not a deep movie. It doesn't leave you much to chew on, which is fine, because the target here is the art of spin, not so much cigarette purveyors. And this is satire, not an exposé.
The movie may amount to little more than a weightless political romp, but when it does punch it directs equal jabs to the left and right, and without regard to political correctness. Like the smooth-talking Naylor, it's slick and shameless, but still clever, and all in good fun.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].