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'Thank You for Smoking' Displays a Sense of Humor


You may not have heard of the shameless tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor or know much about the actor Aaron Eckhart. The new movie Thank You for Smoking is about to change all that.

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan explains.

KENNETH TURAN: Meet Nick Naylor, also known as the yuppie Mephistopheles. He's the amoral public face of the tobacco industry and he prides himself on being one of the few people on this planet who know what it is to be truly despised.


AARON ECKHART: Well, my product puts away 475,000 a year.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, okay, now 475 is a legit number.

ECKHART: Okay 435,000, that's 1,200 a day. How many alcohol-related deaths a year?

Woman: Well...

ECKHART: A hundred thousand? Tops? That's what, 270 a day? Wow-ee, 270 people, a tragedy. Excuse me if I don't exactly see terrorists getting excited about kidnapping anyone from the alcohol industry.

TURAN: Naylor's outlandish exploits are the raison d'etre for Thank You for Smoking, a very smart and funny movie directed by Jason Reitman. Reitman also shrewdly adapted the screenplay from Christopher Buckley's savage satiric novel. The novel was 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 creator of shots and commercials, is the son of director Ivan Reitman. His complete understanding of comedy has made Thank You for Smoking that singular film that actually has a sense of humor. Reitman's script and direction retain the novel's rhythms and black comic sensibility, while eliminating or rearranging events. He's also figured out a way to make the story more audience friendly, without losing the extraordinary bite that made the book so successful.

That success is grounded in the film's faithfulness to the novel's wild and crazy characters. There are smug senators and smugger Hollywood agents, cancer-prone smoking cowboys, and most of all, the unphasable Mr. Naylor, the self-described Colonel Sanders of nicotine.


WILLIAM H: The death toll from airline and automobile accidents doesn't even skim the surface of cigarettes. They don't even compare.

ECKHART: Oh, this from a senator who calls Vermont home.

MACY: I don't follow you, Mr. Naylor.

ECKHART: Well, the real demonstrated number one killer in America is cholesterol, and here comes Senator Finistirre, who's fine state is, I regret to say, clogging the nation's arteries with Vermont cheddar cheese.


ECKHART: If we want to talk numbers, how about the millions of people dying of heart attacks? Perhaps Vermont cheddar should come with a skull and crossbones.

TURAN: Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart, is one of the great talkers of all time. He's a man who not only has to defend the indefensible, but actually enjoys it. Not just anyone could do his job, he tells his earnest 12-year-old son. It requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people.

Bringing Naylor to the screen is a tricky proposition. The character has to be someone who's actions horrify us, but whose enthusiasm and ability to make the system do his bidding turn him into the hero against our will. It's a role that uses more facets of Aaron Eckhart that anything has before and he knows what to do with it.

That's the most entertaining touch in this unexpectedly entertaining film.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times. You can see clips from Thank You for Smoking and hear the director talk about his director dad at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

MoviesMorning Edition
Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.