On the Scene-3/26/06



Puff, the magic drama? Comedy is more like it.

And "Thank You for Smoking" is … s-m-okin!

A nicotine fit of laughs, the new comedy, opening on Friday, March 24, lights up screens with a satire so sparking hot that it should come with a warning from the surgeon's general's office: Laugh at your own risk.

And that's just what Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) does. A lobbyist for the tobacco industry, he laughs at the truth, mimics the myths, lies along the lies and subverts the substantiated.

He doesn't need Debbie Boone to light up his life; the tobacco tyrants set his personal pyre afire with money to burn.

Based on Christopher Buckley's best-selling novel, "Thank You for Smoking" is about so much more than Naylor's thankless job as a cog in the wheel that clogs lungs and causes cancer. It is about facts hung out to dry on the spin cycle, and about personal responsibility in a society where business is never personal, but can be dehumanizing.

Hey, Jason Reitman, got a match?

Katie Holmes is a reporter making her own news, as Aaron Eckhart discovers in "Thank You for Smoking"

Actually, few; he handles his first major directorial assignment with the aplomb and applause-worthy acrobatics needed when taking on that Washington Olympic sport of slippery slopes: tobacconing.

"No, I don't smoke, never have," he smiles rather than fumes. "Actually, I tried it when I was 15, but it hurt too much. I never got into it."

Fifteen? That would be exactly 14 years and 354 days after he made his first movie appearance, brought on to the set of "Animal House" at age 11 days in 1977.

Toga to go? Food fight? Who did the honor?

His father, Hollywood laugh legend Ivan Reitman, whose right stuff with comedy is as broad as it is brave.

If Reitman carried him on set, he doesn't carry him now. Jason's his own juggernaut; his "In God We Trust," a comedy short, had a long history at film fests, after doing the samba at Sundance seven years ago.

The kid who grew up with "Ghostbusters" can bust an audience's gut himself with the poke to the rib and the lunges at the lungs that is "Smoking."

But if the tobacco industry wants to tar and feather him, then, says Reitman, he's failed at what he wants to do. Joint out of place? This is not an anti-smoking film; it's a pro-prickly parody that sets up every self-righteous rebel and retrograde whose chest is puffed out with false pride. It is also very much about a person's self-value; individual as a Mastercard commercial – priceless?

"This is a movie about freedom of choice," says Reitman.

McNuggets of truth? Read between the satirical script's lines – if the smoke doesn't get in your eyes.

"I'm not trying to tell people what to do; I don't care if they screw themselves up smoking. People should have the right to do what they want. I don't think the government should tell people what to do in their lives. I believe in personal responsibility, which is what this is all about."

He took control of his own destiny early on – without, not with, the encouragement of his famous father. Indeed, it has been reported that the elder Reitman tried to dissuade daddy's boy from acting by putting him in his early movies and handing him the most asinine of dialogue. At school, the future "Smoking" director/screenwriter became the butt of jokes, the un-Kool kid.

"I secretly think he did that, yeah," laughs Reitman the young. "He chose a time in my life, too, when I wasn't confident – 9 to 14 are not good years for a Jewish boy."

It's much better now for the man he's become. Reitman laughs off those earlier years now, but remembers the seriousness he always attached to directing if not performing.

"I grew up with my father's brand of broad comedies," he says, broadening his own horizons at age 15 after he saw impactful comedies such as "Slackers" and "Clerks," which he says changed his "idea of comedy."

The filter of fun is what makes his current work so meaningful now. "Thank You for Smoking" is courteously impolite in its political incorrectness. Ask Reitman why, and he comes back with, why not?

"Jews are taught to question," he fires back. "And that is what this film is all about."

Observe Nick and find a lobbyist adrift in a hotel lobby, a traveling man without a real home base. Is he a pro without a conscience or someone just conning himself?

Of course, there are many others whirling in his spin cycle, which includes a Hollywood product placer – played so smartly and smarmily by Rob Lowe, in a true highlight of the film – who blows smoke up the asinine industry he represents.

But it is Nick who ultimately smokes out the heroes and hypocrites, discovering that the real Marlboro Man can't cough up the truths on cue.

"Nick," says Reitman, "puts the mirror up to both sides of society."

Indeed, the film is a kick in the ash of both smoker and those who would smite him. "It's a good-time movie, not a heavy handed film at all," reminds Reitman, who doesn't have to be reminded that co-star Katie Holmes adds to the appeal as a reporter whose puff piece on Nick may not be that at all.

It was a long-simmering controversy on a sexy scene suddenly excised, which had real reporters conjecturing that it was taken out at the behest of Holmes' famous fiance, trying his hand not at spin but Cruise control.

Absolutely not, says Reitman, blaming the whole controversy on a projectionist's mistake at a screening. No one – Scientologists included – were going to cloud his directorial vision.

And if Reitman finds this film to be his lucky strike, well, he, in a way, owes it to Jesus. Mel Gibson's Icon Productions originally owned the rights, but ultimately butted out. Independent producer David O. Sacks – who sold his company PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002 – was the film's new pay pal, offering up his bucks for production.

As for Mel … when star Eckhart wondered why Reitman chose him instead of casting Gibson, who originally had wanted to star in the film, Reitman reportedly retorted of Mel, "He was too busy whipping Christ."

Oooh, that hurts, Reitman grimaces now of his comedic whiplash. "It was a joke, I was just joking," he winces at being whacked on the head when reminded of that remark.

Which doesn't stop him from this rejoinder now about Pell-Mel: "Let's just say his passions were elsewhere."

Reitman's passions play out on screen. But the biggest joke is that the movie theaters where "Thank You for Smoking" will play aren't the only places where a "No Smoking" sign is needed. "There was no smoking in the movie," says Reitman.

LSMFT – Light satire makes a fine topic, and Reitman can handle any controversy. In a way, he's made two films in one; one of the focal figures in the film is the MOD Squad, but don't expect to see Peggy Lipton to be lighting up in this one.

The MOD Squad is a team of "merchants of death" – lobbyists/ spokespeople for industries known for their die-hard takes on life.

Indeed, the liquor industry may need a drink itself after seeing this flick. But, then, at least one spokesman scotched any notion that drinkers can imbibe but don't abide by self-mockery.

After watching the film, Frank Coleman, who sits on the Distilled Spirits Council, may have interpreted it all as a glass half-full. As reported by Washington's The Hill, he drank all the satire in, and then called out for a celebration: "Let's go have a cocktail!"


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