Satire about smoking is a big drag

Andrew Hampp

Rob Loew, left, and Adam Brody, better known as Seth Cohen from “The O.C.,” star in the satiric Thank You For Smoking. COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

There’s a disturbing trend in film distribution these days that’s really starting to take its toll – the slow rollout of the over-hyped indie film.

Opening up a movie in “select cities” before unleashing it on mainstream America is a formula that has worked in building up buzz for sleeper hits such as The Blair Witch Project and this year’s Brokeback Mountain. This time, it’s being used to generate heat around Thank You For Smoking, a star-studded satire on the tobacco industry directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ghost Busters director Ivan).

But while films such as Brokeback ended up living up to the months of hype that preceded their wide releases, Smoking doesn’t quite do justice to its billing as a biting commentary on the war against tobacco.

The film centers around Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a fast-talking lobbyist for a fictional organization called The Academy of Tobacco Studies, and his quest to promote cigarettes as a hot commodity rather than denounce their health defects.

Eckhart’s riveting performance is Smoking’s strongest attribute. His Nick Naylor is equal parts smarm and charm, so smugly persuasive he’d probably try to buy your own brain and have a successful transaction. Known mostly, if at all, to the average filmgoer for his work as Julia Roberts’ biker boyfriend in Erin Brockovich, Eckhart isn’t likely to be indie film fans’ best-kept secret for much longer after his winning turn here.

Thank You For Smoking

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Cameron Bright, Willaim H. Macy, Robert Duvall

Directed by Jason Reitmen

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Stater rating (out of five): ?? «

If only the rest of Thank You For Smoking were consistent as its star. Based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley, the film is equal parts The Insider and Election -ÿjust not all the good parts.

Smoking is daringly funny when making light of some of smoking’s harshest realities (Nick turns the statistic that cigarettes kill more people daily than alcohol and car accidents combined into a marketing ploy), but it can also fall victim to sitcom cuteness. This is mostly due to the subplot that involves Nick’s attempts to reconnect with his preteen son Joey (Cameron Bright), who is strangely fascinated by and supportive of his father’s corrupt work-related behavior.

Luckily, several celebrity cameos are staggered just frequently enough to make the proceedings enjoyable if not necessarily cutting-edge.

Katie Holmes has fun in her rather brief role as an ambitious Washington news reporter who literally screws Nick to uncover his shady dealings within the tobacco industry. Robert Duvall is delightfully droll as Nick’s Yosemite Sam-esque boss, dubbed “The Captain” by his staff. Rob Lowe even pops up as a funny, foul-mouthed movie exec who encourages Nick to get cigarettes into the mouths of as many movie stars as possible to make smoking appear sexy again.

Best of all, however, are Maria Bello (A History Of Violence) and David Koechner (Anchorman), who with Eckhart make up a lunch group informally known as the MOD Squad, or Merchants of Death -ÿthe joke being Bello works as an alcohol lobbyist and Koechner works for the firearms industry. The trio have kinetic chemistry and their frequent scenes together throughout the film make up a good portion of Smoking‘s highlights.

Yet for all its acting strengths and occasional comedic highs, Thank You For Smoking hits a major low with its far-too-tidy happy ending, something a true satire would avoid like the plague. But its last-minute transition from spoof to crowd pleaser is what will likely keep Smoking winking all the way to the bank as it adds more theaters in the coming weeks.

Contact campus editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].