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Bring On The Bad Guys

A tobacco spokesman, a mob flunky, a hit man and a murderess all walk into a bar ...

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The so-called "culture of spin" gets taken for its own spin in Thank You for Smoking, a lacerating adaptation of Christopher Buckley's celebrated 1994 novel. Even with a too-brief running time of 92 minutes, the movie manages to pack in all manner of material both saucy and dicey. Yet when the smoke clears, what's most visible is the emergence of Aaron Eckhart as a major talent.

Eckhart's been making movies for quite some time -- his initial breakout arrived in 1997, when he played the yuppie misogynist in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men -- but over the ensuing years, few directors have bothered to offer him roles that were remotely challenging or interesting. But Jason Reitman, the director-scripter of Thank You for Smoking (and son of notable comedy helmer Ivan Reitman), has graciously handed Eckhart a gift-wrapped role in the character of Nick Naylor. If Eckhart's work here doesn't catapult him to greater glory -- or at least a wider pick of parts -- then nothing will.

At the film's outset, Nick Naylor understands that, as the chief spokesman for the tobacco companies, he's viewed by a significant part of the population as Public Enemy No. 1. Yet Nick isn't especially troubled by this designation; if anything, it only challenges him to make the best case he can on behalf of the nation's cigarette companies. He's a master of spin, as evidenced by his appearance on a popular talk show. Seated next to a bald teenage boy who's a cancer survivor, Nick insists that it's in the best interest of the tobacco companies for this lad to remain alive (so he can continue buying their products) and that it's actually the anti-smoking forces who want the kid to die in order to fulfill his function as a martyr.

Such a rabble-rousing appearance is nothing new to Nick: He spends his days working his magic as a spin doctor, and he's bursting with ideas on how to return this country to the days when smoking was not only fashionable but expected. One such brainstorm takes him to the door of Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), a Hollywood agent who, after listening to Nick's pitch, figures he can convince Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones to engage in a post-coital smoke in their upcoming sci-fi epic set on a space station. One unenviable assignment -- to offer a bribe to a former (and dying) Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who's planning to lash out at the tobacco industry -- succeeds only because Nick is second to none when it comes to deconstructing opposing arguments. Indeed, he's so skilled at his job that he attracts the attention of Big Tobacco's Big Daddy, a crusty old coot (Robert Duvall) prone to mint juleps.

But not everything is going Nick's way. His only friends (Maria Bello and David Koechner) are fellow spin doctors from the alcohol and firearm lobbies, whom he regularly meets for drinks so they can compare their respective industries' mortality rates. His burgeoning relationship with an investigative reporter (Katie Holmes) threatens to get messy once he begins opening up to her. (That a seasoned lobbyist would be so naïve when it comes to a newspaper reporter's sincerity is the only part of the film that's impossible to swallow.) While debating a testy senator (William H. Macy) on The Dennis Miller Show, Nick receives a death threat from an anonymous caller. And, perhaps most troublesome, he's not exactly sure where he stands with his young son Joey (Cameron Bright), who adores his dad but often asks tough questions about his profession.

Reitman packs the first half of the picture with a steady stream of laughs, but there's a noticeable drop-off during the second part. In many black comedies, this signals that the storytellers suddenly feel a twang of remorse over their unrepentant characters and start softening up the picture for a sentimental fade-out. Is that the case here? That's up to each individual viewer to decide. Some will see the final scenes as a cop-out, a reluctance to go for the jugular. All I see is Nick Naylor still doing what he does best: blowing smoke up the backside of a populace seduced by the wafting words that absolve it of personal responsibility.

Find Me Guilty

Out of all the components that make up the American judicial structure, I never for the life of me could wrap my mind around the logic of a jury system. Basically, the notion behind this ill-conceived idea is this: "Hey, let's find 12 of the biggest dim-bulbs in the country, a dozen people who are utterly clueless about what's going on in the world around them, and place all manner of criminal cases big and small in their collective hands." It's a ludicrous system for any number of reasons, but don't take my word regarding its flaws: Just ask Rodney King or the spirit of Nicole Simpson.

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