Aaron Eckhart is a handsome devil who, since In the Company of Men, has made a tidy movie career for himself selling the Mephistophelian face of good looks: By virtue of square jaw and cold charm alone, he was born to play Nick Naylor, the infernally resourceful tobacco-industry lobbyist who peddles death for a living in Thank You for Smoking. And the way he promotes amorality as an attractive employment choice marks a new high in the actor's career playing ethically challenged men. I could swear Eckhart turns the glint in his eyes on and off at will, daring an audience not to love him while Naylor derides everything a health-conscious populace holds dear. The guy earns his living campaigning on behalf of the fictional, richly named Academy of Tobacco Studies. He spins lies into truth and truth into lies. And once a week he gets together for booze, fatty foods, and shoptalk with fellow shills for alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (Anchorman's David Koechner). They call themselves the M.O.D. Squad as in Merchants of Death.
Thank You is that kind of story, cynical and cheerily merciless. And damned if this biting comedy of hypocrisy, a confident feature-film debut for writer-director Jason Reitman, hasn't taken on even more resonance in the dozen years since Christopher Buckley first published the rollicking novel on which this tar-black PC satire is based. Today, spin is as persistent as cell phones that ring in a movie theater.
As a Vermont senator (with the unimprovable name of Ortolan Finistirre) and an antitobacco activist of the most fun-killing sort, William H. Macy, shoed in nubby socks and Birkenstock sandals like a vegan warrior, embodies every joke ever made about NPR. Hollywood pomposity is dispatched in the persons of a self-important studio honcho (Rob Lowe) and his groveling assistant, hilariously nailed by The O.C.'s Adam Brody. And as an alluring newspaper reporter with no qualms about employing seduction as a tool of the trade, Katie Holmes breezily sets back the twin causes of journalistic integrity and gender equality by decades. (If the movie turns out to be Holmes' last fling with professional freedom before committing to the role of Mother of Tom Cruise's Child, at least she goes out with a nice bit of dirty sex on her résumé.)
Still, the movie is also, for better and worse, as uniformly rolled as a machine-made Marlboro. (Apropos, Sam Elliott plays a former cig-promoting cowboy now angrily dying of lung cancer, bribed with a briefcase full of hush money.) And as a result of such smoothing out, where Buckley's book is scathing about spin, Reitman's movie is, well, kinder. Gentler. Perhaps because Jason Reitman is the son of producer-director Ivan (who, for Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters alone, deserves a Canadian prix d'honneur). And something of Dad's eye for the box office has understandably rubbed off on the son, something that may well put the younger Reitman's Hollywood career on a fast track.
That same gentling, though, casts a disorienting glow, particularly when it comes to Naylor's empathetic, expanded screen relationship with his adoring 12-year-old son, Joey (Cameron Bright, coming up in X-Men 3). In the way of movies sure to be endorsed by someone like Finistirre, the bond between lobbyist father and impressionable son is now all too resistant to cynicism. Mocking PC piousness may have come of age in movie comedies, but family values are still no laughing matter.